Pretty soon you’re going to be able to go to your local video game store and pick up a consumer-level virtual reality rig, either Sony’s upcoming Project Morpheus or another shiny new rig that would make William Gibson jealous. And if the VR is good enough, you might trick yourself into thinking you really are in the virtual worlds for the first time ever.
But you can’t fool Mother Nature, scientists say. A recent study shows brains fire in completely different patterns with presented with a virtual reality space than when shown, ahem, real reality.
The findings are an outgrowth of University of California, Los Angeles Alzheimer’s research. Scientists were studying the hippocampus, which is not only the region of the brain involved in Alzheimer’s but also the region that forms new memories and makes “cognitive maps” of spaces. Scientist theorizes the hippocampus uses our senses such as sight, smell and sound to compute the spaces between us and landmarks, giving us our bearings.
To study this, researchers placed rats on a treadmill in front of a virtual world created by a video screen. The rats had convincing visual information, but no help from their other senses.
They found that although the rats seemed to react to the virtual environment normally, the activity in the hippocampus was a mess, showing a completely different pattern than the rats presented in a real world environment. The cognitive map seemed to completely disappear, the hippocampus was less active, and instead the rats seemed to simply be relying on their brains calculating the amount of distance they had walked.
“The pattern of activity in a brain region involved in spatial learning in the virtual world is completely different than when it processes activity in the real world,” said Mayank Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics, neurology and neurobiology in the UCLA College and the study’s senior author. “Since so many people are using virtual reality, it is important to understand why there are such big differences.”