Each time a new entertainment technology appears, there’s controversy about the way it takes attention away from real life and relationships. Books, theatre, radio, film, TV, mobiles, tablets and videogames have all been blamed for changes in people’s behaviour, for distracting them from the business of day to day living. When we dive into a narrative through any medium we are suspending our sense of reality and knowingly escaping from our current reality. To date, while our mind and attention might be engaged elsewhere, the physical world can intrude because our eyes and ears can be pulled away by something that breaks our concentration.
Virtual Reality is different because it plunges our sight and hearing into a constructed world and there’s no escaping it without removing the headset and earphones. It is a truly immersive experience and that presents huge opportunities and challenges. The military and medical researchers have been early adopters; recreating stressful environments has been proven to be helpful for reducing post- traumatic stress disorder and for tricking the brains of people who’ve suffered a stroke into firing neurons to regain muscle movement. Patients participating in these experiments have been carefully briefed and introduced to the possible effects and outcomes; they go in knowing what to expect and how they may feel afterwards. Some people, for example, do feel disconnected and even disappointed when they return to their reality. Gamers adopting VR are anticipating an adrenaline rush as they play in worlds and scenarios they have chosen and want to test themselves to the limit. There is no fear of failure in games as there might be in the real world; the drive to succeed, to be better than other players if often the key motivator for continuing to play after crashing out of a mission and, since gamers have been pitting their wits against digital contestants for years and the culture is well established, there is no surprise when the headset is removed. It’s a more intense experience, but one that’s expected and relished.
Our brains are the most amazing organs, researchers still don’t fully understand how the concept of self and our memories are stored and retrieved, but we all know the brain can be tricked into perceiving different versions of reality. When we are faced with the seemingly impossible, our brains try to make sense of the scene in a way that is consistent with our world view; we’ve all been fooled by tricks of perspective for example. Memory too is inconsistent; we interpret events through our personal lens and can also re-write what happened to better fit our sense of who we are and how we behave. We generally believe we are our memories and if these are not available to us or they are changed, we’re no longer the same person. In virtual reality we are participating in a constructed narrative or experience, which has the potential to change our view of reality. Early research comparing rats’ route finding in reality versus virtual reality found that while the pattern of neuron activity in their hippocampus, which is where memory and mapping seem to be activated, was comparable; whereas in the virtual scenario only half the neurons actually fired. One theory of psychology holds that ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’, meaning that the more neurons firing in a particular pathway, the stronger that memory is, the easier it is to recall and with enough frequency recall becomes automatic. This is why once we learn to ride a bike, we rarely forget the skill. What impact regular use of VR might have on neuronal activity is not yet known and at the moment no one is wearing these headsets for 8 hours a day – usually it’s a transitory experience
I’ve seen some wonderful videos with seniors enjoying trips down memory lane in VR and being able to explore the familiar scenes unfolding before their eyes. Naturally, there’s great excitement if a new approach gives someone with dementia real pleasure and happiness. For families and carers looking on, there’s pleasure that someone they love is enjoying a moment in a life, which has been cruelly blighted. At the later stage of dementia, living in the present is often confusing and distressing; a VR experience can elicit a happy response, which lasts after the headset has been removed and the experience forgotten. But consider a worst-case scenario; here is something that can keep people quiet and happy with minimal effort by carers. Is there going to be a temptation to use these headsets as digital pacifiers, to keep people, who can be difficult to care for, quiet and under control? I have a nightmare vision of a care home with residents seated around the perimeter of the room, all plugged into their headsets, left alone until it becomes necessary to attend to them. Couldn’t happen? We have all seen examples of the worst kinds of care and truly shocking behaviour; while the majority of care givers genuinely strive to generate an atmosphere of security and wellbeing, there are always people who just don’t care enough and will cut corners, whether that’s to reduce their own workload or to save money.
I’m no luddite, I worked in the videogames industry and was a pioneer for using games for training, learning and behaviour change, but that evolved from an industry that was nearing mainstream and many of the advantages, pitfalls and behaviour patterns were already known. Although VR has been around since the 1960’s it’s only with the recent arrival of consumer headsets that we’re seeing wider adoption. We’re at an early stage of understanding its impact on our brains and how we can use it for real benefit. We don’t yet know whether frequent use of VR will change our emotional response or interfere with our memories. We must remain alert to the possibility of misuse and mind-altering experiences.