6. Physiological and Psychological Effects of Virtual Reality

By Sheryar Ali, Samuel Vaughn, and James Williams

How often have you been told to go to your “happy place?” It’s not an easy task. It’s difficult to close your eyes and imagine a perfect environment while at the same time ignoring the senses telling you to snap back to reality.

Now, imagine a device that could take you to your “happy place.” It could create a virtual environment to explore. It could replicate pleasing sounds and images with ease. No longer will you need to count to ten or travel long distances to take a breather.

The Oculus Rift’s magical ability to draw out an individual’s unthinking emotional reactions comes from its immersive field of vision technology. Field of vision is a simple concept. It means the users cannot see the edges of the screen and the world moves realistically around them, regardless of whether or not the surfaces seem realistic. The Rift could take you from your mundane cubicle to the beautiful Bahama beaches, or virtually anywhere — even to your “happy place.”

Yes, there’s a catch.

The history of virtual reality has been bumpy. Aside from the great implications, the psychological and physiological oddities that it causes has held it back.

Physical Side Effects

In a study from 21 years ago, researchers wanted to compare the impact of playing versus observing a violent virtual reality game on young adults’ arousal levels, feeling of hostility, and aggressive thoughts. The researchers supposed that physiological arousal and aggressive thoughts would increase more for those who directly participated in the experience rather than those who simply observed it. The researchers observed an increased heart rate after participation in the game, and also reported increased dizziness as well as nausea (cue the Dramamine) in comparison to those who observed the game.

Similarly, the individuals who played the games had an increase in aggressive thoughts. Immersive virtual reality continues to have these side effects on a user’s body. One implication of this immersion, besides the physiological effects of increased heart rate, dizziness and nausea, is a more profound impact on thoughts.

Psychological Side Effects

The Oculus Rift can have direct effects on the psyche, as well. Skeptics of virtual reality concern themselves with the negative psychological effects of virtual reality such as sensory conflict theory. One study defined sensory conflict theory as having the visual and vestibular systems at odds while in an immersive, virtual environment.

Consider this example. You are using the Oculus Rift and are in a moving car. You see the buildings pass by which signals by your visual sensory system that you are moving. But, you do not feel your hands turning the wheel, or your foot pressing the gas, which signals by your vestibular system that you are not moving. This disconnect is a theorized cause of motion sickness because your brain is receiving mixed messages (hence sensory conflict theory). Perhaps a fully immersive virtual reality experience will resolve the sensory conflict issue later on down the road.

Future Adaptations in the Health Field

We believe the Rift’s future applications in the health field will mainly be focused on cognitive disorder treatment. One study showed how virtual reality can create significant distraction for someone who is in physical pain. Since pain is only an electrical signal to the brain, the researchers dulled the pain with a distracting, immersive game. The players, who were experiencing pain, were focused on the object of the game so intensely that virtual reality created a distraction which led to reduced pain.

The Oculus Rift’s applications in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) lead the charge in the future of trauma treatment. One study focused on using virtual reality to treat PTSD for Vietnam veterans. Previous treatment methods, such as imaginal exposure (using your imagination to pretend you are in a war scene), produced little effect; “helicopter ride therapy,” which included taking veterans on helicopter rides to overcome the stress induced by the sound of a helicopter, proved effective, but unfeasible considering the large quantity of veterans suffering from PTSD and the expense of helicopter rides.

Instead, virtual reality treatment showed a decrease in levels of PTSD for the participants and helped change negative coping methods such as substance abuse and depression. The study proved effective because the researchers were able recreate the Vietnam experience for the veterans in a controlled environment. The picture above comes from a similar study which showed how the Rift could be used to help treat PTSD in Iraqi veterans.

The superior graphics and tools of the Oculus Rift have broadened the implications of a psychological study sixteen years ago. We’re not talking about Nintendo Virtual Boy here. We believe that the Rift will expand to other psychological treatments ranging anywhere from people who have experiencing a traumatic event such as a car accident, or other major life change.

Addressing Problems Going Forward

Some of the problems that prevent VR from becoming universal can be overcome by turning to examples in science fiction. For example, in Star Trek the Holodeck was used to rectify coordination disconnect, a situation in which a person retains some sensations from the Rift. Using the Holodeck, the Star Trek characters could create anything they wanted and manipulate it through touch. Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics in Germany has been working to replicate this effect using the Rift. A person can still be disoriented coming out of the Rift, since it is all a visual and audible experience, and touch based senses still don’t align, but it seems they are working on that by providing real physical items to interact with.

The television series Batman Beyond defined another problem VR will have to counter: total immersion. The VR simulator on the show provided sensory triggers for each of a person’s senses causing the characters that used it to become completely immersed. This led to addiction of virtual reality and rejection of actual reality. In this instance, users experienced a reverse uncanny valley effect — true reality felt unreal. To prevent addiction, users had restrictions on how much time they could spend in the simulator. In analysis, people should receive guidelines for how to use the Rift and how long each VR session should last to prevent the dangerous consequences of overuse.

It will not be long before the Rift’s side effects on health are attended to, and virtual reality becomes a wide-spread experience. In the meantime, positive thinking will transform your cubicle into a happy place instead of that Bahama Breeze.