Virtual Reality in Neuroscience Research

Virtual reality (VR) is the technology that simulates real world experience. Using a “shoebox”-like helmet with a screen inside and Hi-Fi headphones, the technology stimulates visual and auditory systems. The headset is implemented with locomotor sensors, which allow users to interact with the artificial environment in a way similar to how we interact with real world. The multimodal sensory stimulation offers an immersive experience for users that makes people believe it is real. With VR, which serves like a teleporter in Star Trek, people can enjoy a moment of disconnectedness from reality without physically removing themselves. 


2016 has been called “the year of virtual reality” (Morris, 2015). According to Google Trend, the popularity of the word “virtual reality” has been increased since 2015, and reaches its peak in 2016. What makes VR so hot? VR technology has been around for a while. In the lecture of Building Visual Worlds, students of Prof. Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University have created various creative projects (highly recommend! a must see!) using virtual reality technology since 1998. What makes VR so hot in 2016 is that VR changes from something only exists in Carnegie Mellon’s class to an affordable technology that can be easily implemented and used by everyone. Facebook-owned Oculus released its first consumer market targeted VR device, Oculus Rift in March. It allows people to play games from an immersive first person perspective by wearing a “shoebox” (Stevenson, 2016) for $599. An even cheaper option, Google’s Cardboard, allows people to enjoy VR for only $15 with the help of 360-degree video streaming on YouTube. Users can attach their smartphone to the box, hold the box close to their eyes, and move their head around to explore different angles of the video. For a reasonable amount of money, users can experience teleportation. You can do everything from flying a fighter jet like Top Gun to playing with your dog created in Minecraft, all in your room. So far, most of the current use of consumer market targeted VR devices is associated with video games. Sadly, this won’t be a good enough reason to persuade my parents to get me one, though Ariel has reported on a previous blog that video games won’t do any harm to our brain. What else can we do with VR, in a more brain-friendly way?

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VR on Google Trend

We can use VR to restore attention and improve cognitive performance by interacting with nature scenery. In a previous blog, Sarah reported the research by Atchley, Strayer, and Atchley (2012) that creativity of participants was significantly improved after a four-day hiking trip. One of the authors, David Strayer, came to Colby for a talk about their most recent research (D. Strayer, personal communication, April 22, 2016). They examined the midline frontal theta frequency using EEG during a four-day hiking trip.Participants were found to have less midline frontal theta activity in nature than in urban areas. The less midline frontal theta frequency found in nature is negatively associated with the default mode network, which is activated when one focuses on self-referential thoughts. The activation of the default mode network reflects less activity of the attention network and less mental fatigue that attention capacity is replenished while interacting with nature.

Testing EEG in the Wild

One interesting to note that though the attention restoration effects of nature disappeared when participants came back to urban life, so it is possible that extended exposure to nature is needed to sustain the effects. However, it is not feasible for everyone to take hiking trips everyday. VR might be the solution. The teleportation function of VR can offer immersive nature experience without the cost of sacrificing urban life while achieving the goal of mentally restoring in nature. But how effective is VR in restoring attention? Designer Neil Stevenson (2016) answered the question by conducting what is perhaps the first study on the effectiveness of nature scenes simulated by VR in restoring attention. Wearing the VR device and noise-canceling headphones, Stevenson viewed scenes of realistic natural scenes (e.g., sandy beach, forest, Japanese garden) for 20 minutes. During the session, he was allowed to move his head around to explore the scene. After exploring nature in VR, Stevenson reported feeling peaceful and refreshed. Afterward he also did a test similar to the RAT used in Atchley et al. (2012), in which he measured how long it took him to come up with 10 different names for paint colors. The task only took him a few minutes, much faster than he had expected. He noted that the VR device enclosed him in the natural environment by removing all external distractions, and he was able to move around as if he was interacting with a real setting. Thus, a VR session for 20 minutes can be almost as effective in restoring cognition as is hiking for four days. At the end of his blog, Stevenson claimed he would work on building self-served VR set-ups to help designers get restored and regain creativity. If you are interested in their project, feel free to follow his blog for their latest progress.

Now, I finally have a good reason to get a VR device.

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Stevenson in VR Restoration Session



Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PloS One, 7, e51474. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051474

Stevenson, N. (2016). Can virtual reality make you more creative? A designer and his VR spirit guide attempt to find out. Medium. Retrieved from:



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