Virtual reality boggles the brain

UCLA's Mayank MehtaYesterday we reported that Thomas Cook wants to woo customers by showing them fun places they might like to book a holiday.

And so they might be interested in research from UCLA which finds the brain reacts completely differently to virtual reality than to seeing and hearing things in the real world.

Mayank Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics, said that his and his teams findings could well be significant for people who use VR for gaming, military, commercial or other purposes.

Mehta said: “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.  Since so many people are using virtual reality, it is important to understand why there are such big differences.”

The UCLA boffins studied the hippocampus, a part of the brain which plays a big part in creating new memories and mental spatial maps.

The scientists believe that the hippocampus measures distances between a person and surrounding landmarks, aided by other sense impressions like sounds and smells.

The scientists tested rats in virtual and real worlds and measured the activity of hundreds of neurons in their hippocampi in both environments. The results were entirely different – in VR the rats’ hippocampi fired randomly “as if the neurons had no idea where the rat was”.  Mehta said the mental map “disappeared completely”. Over half of the neurons in the hippocampi shut down in VR.