September 13


Your Virtual Self: Psychology in the Age of Virtual Reality

“Look!” My nephew kept eating from a box of infinite donuts in his new cubicle office. He had just been promoted by a floating computer monitor, his boss. A concerned look slowly printed onto his boss’ flat face as it saw him continuously push donuts down his gullet. The game was “Job Simulator”, and while I knew what was coming, that didn’t stop it from being hilarious. My nephew kept waving his remote controllers through the air, eating donut by donut, until he blew chunks all over his disgusted boss. And he kept doing it – he had earned those virtual donuts!


This was a thing of dreams in my childhood, yet now we live in an age when we can immerse ourselves in virtual reality video games–at consumer affordable prices. A headset, a monitor, and a console or PC can transform us into a race car driver, Nordic warrior, or even Rick and Morty’s research assistant. While a consumer market for virtual reality video games is thriving, potentially more impactful ideas are starting to be tested. What can a virtual reality inform us about the way we navigate our three dimensional world? Can confrontation of phobias in VR serve as  fear exposure therapy? And just how far are we from the realities depicted in “Ready Player One” and “.hack”?


Virtual Scares


A significant component of VR technology improvements relies on the quality of graphics. Better models of environmental objects ramp up the immersion factor, a notable example of which is Resident Evil 7. In this VR game, you are thrust into the virtual equivalent of a Halloween haunted house, but without the cheese factor (“Boo!”). If you doubt the power of modern day VR to elicit emotion, I encourage you to watch Youtube reactions of players as a chainsaw-wielding serial killer chases them through a dimly lit abandoned mansion.


The Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) at Duke University has tapped into VR’s ability to elicit genuine emotion to conduct research on fear acquisition and extinction. The advantages of using DiVe lie in its capacity to recreate the specific contexts that trigger fear in an individual. In one study at DiVe, healthy participants acquired a fear as they navigated a virtual environment. For example, an unexpected spider stimulus in a virtual environment, such as a forest, was paired with electrical wrist stimulation. This acquisition session was followed by retention test 24 hours later [1]. In this test, the same spider stimulus would appear in several virtual contexts, this time without the shock. The findings demonstrated that the acquired fear of the spider was reported at a greater magnitude when the virtual environment was the same as before, for example in a virtual forest, than when it appeared in a previously unseen virtual house, exemplifying the immersive quality of VR to elicit emotion.

Other research groups have employed exposure therapy practices in VR to alleviate fear and anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been at the center of VR exposure therapy, with the goal of reintroducing patients to the context of their trauma in a safe and controllable situation to guide them towards “emotional engagement and acceptance” [2]. Before VR, recreating environmental contexts of trauma proved difficult and expensive: modeling a battlefield is much less expensive if it’s done in the virtual realm. One particular study developed VR environments to assist victims of the September 11th attacks. In some cases patients were exposed over prolonged sessions to virtual environments showing people jumping off of the towers. Remarkably, this direct visual confrontation with the horrors of the attack led to a long-lasting decline of PTSD symptoms [3].


A body for a virtual society


An immersive environment in virtual reality may influence how you perceive your physical self. Recent studies have demonstrated that an individual may feel as if their virtual avatar represents their self, a sort of virtual body illusion highlighting how we tend to perceive and navigate the world as relative to our own body [4]. If you can perceive your virtual self as your own body, how may social interactions between you and others play out in a virtual world? A recent online game, VRChat, has built a cult following over the past year. It is the most widely used chat room that integrates virtual reality avatars, complete with physical customization as well as lip synching when speaking into a microphone. Players can design their own rooms as well, and with few restrictions players can talk to each other as, say, Pikachu and Sonic inside of a mile high volcano. This free-to-play software is the closest consumers can get to the world of “Ready Player One,” not because of its graphics and gameplay, but rather because of its full display of humanity, the good and the bad. Like any anonymous chat room, players can run into issues such as bullying and inappropriate material displayed in  rooms accessible to anyone, regardless of age. Yet a game like this brings about a myriad of new questions. How are social norms upheld deviate in a virtual environment? Sadly, a fully-fledged, virtual reality massive online game is still years away in the video game industry’s production agenda due to a heavy focus on more profitable avenues, such as microtransactions in sports games. However, in a step toward answering these questions in the last decade VR has been used to assess a key characteristic of what makes us social creatures: empathy.

Social cognition is still very much at play in a virtual world. By putting “walking a mile in digital shoes” to the test, social psychology researchers have assessed ways in which empathy can be trained [5]. The Empathy-Enhancing Virtual Evolving Environment (EEVEE) uses virtual avatars to measure empathic responses to virtual facial expressions and social scenarios. A study using EEVEE found that individuals can be trained to effectively discriminate hard to detect negative emotions, such as annoyance, via exposure to such expressions by other virtual avatars [6].  A promising use for VR is one that would allow users to experience how one suffers from cognitive disorders in first person,, such as schizophrenia and autism, to build empathy and understanding of these often stigmatized conditions.



Mapping your virtual reality

VR mouse

Exploration of how the mind maps space has historically been limited by constrictions on how dynamic a real-world testing environment can be. Creating a mental image of the layout of a closed room in a highly controlled, static environment may not reveal the same patterns of brain activity as  exploring a rendered virtual reality world. For example, “place cells” in the hippocampus, a key area in the formation of memory, fire selectively to specific locations within a space, such as borders and corners. With virtual reality, scientists can probe whether these types of cells can exhibit similar patterns of activity in a virtual environment compared to the physical world.  Indeed, a study found that rodents navigating virtual environments exhibit “place cell” activity captured by extracellular recordings, suggesting that virtual boundaries are processed in the brain in a functional way, solely by engaging the visual and vestibular (i.e. balance) systems [7].

The landscape of a virtual world society could be explorable within our lifetimes. VR experiences are now affordable to consumers, and with the right amount of public interest, VR technology’s ability to elicit authentic emotions and new, customizable identities could lead down a path with endless possibilities. Time will tell whether society will view VR as an indispensable tool in the healthcare industry and research or a stigmatized haven for those wishing to retreat from the real world. Until then, I’ll be working up the courage to finish Resident Evil 7.