Virtual Reality is the Brain’s Reality: The Coming of Experiential Technology

I am very interested in technologies that can improve the function and capacity of the human brain. Over a decade ago, as an outgrowth of my training and practice as a neurosurgeon, I was an inventor of novel way to enhance the function of the brain with direct electrical stimulation of the cortical surface. The concept was to enhance the natural “plasticity” of the brain and cause it to “rewire” in order to increase its capabilities or to recover from damage such as a stroke. That’s what neuroplasticity is all about.

In the ensuing years, the field of neurotechnology has grown dramatically. Electrical stimulation of the brain has become an accepted and standard treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and several other neurological disorders. The market for neuropharmaceuticals has simultaneously become massive.

Scientists and clinicians have now made thousands of scientific discoveries related to neuroplasticity. While it used to be thought that the brain became “hard-wired” as humans reached adulthood, it is now widely recognized that the brain maintains an enormous capacity to grow new neurons and form new connections, enhancing its function throughout life. The trick is to provide the appropriate stimuli to the brain to maximize its favorable response.

More than chemicals and electricity

A while back, we used to believe that only chemicals and electricity could cause neuroplastic changes in the brain. Those were the relatively crude tools of the trade for experimentation at the time. Now neuroscientists have shown that all sorts of “exogenous” forms of stimulation can modify brain activity – even permanently. It is now recognized that light, sound, tactile stimulation, and various cognitive tasks such as meditation can also enhance neuroplasticity of the brain. These kinds of stimuli can cause favorable changes in the brain that can last a lifetime.

While it took decades for neuroscientists to elucidate the molecular biology underlying all of this – and it is very much still a work in progress – the results really aren’t very surprising, are they? Of course the brain itself changes in response to light, sound, physical sensations, and cognitive tasks. That is why we continue to learn and grow throughout life as we are exposed to enriching environments and activities! There is no doubt that the capacity of the human brain is not limited but has an enormous ability to expand. The secret is to expose the brain to exactly the right types of favorable stimuli in order to optimize the results. This is what neuroscientists are still trying to figure out. What are the best ways to stimulate the brain and how?

Computing power has led to massively engaging experiences

Over the same timeframe that the underlying mechanisms of neuroplasticity have become better understood, computing power has dramatically increased. We can now leverage incredible speed, processing power, and graphics capabilities. No surprise, then, that in taking advantage of these technological developments, videogaming environments have become immersive and massively engaging like never before. The videogame industry has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Large segments of the population spend more time playing videogames than watching television, reading, or listening to music – or interacting with others in some cases. Given how enriched these gaming experiences have become, virtual reality experiences are right around the corner.

Here’s the thing: immersive and virtual reality videogaming experiences may very well be providing exactly the kind of visual, auditory, tactile, and cognitive stimuli that can influence neuroplasticity. It may be that this kind of information-rich stimulation to the brain is actually more potent than what pharmaceuticals or devices can provide in the form of chemical or electrical stimulation.

Videogaming causes neuroplasticity

Adam Gazzaley is a widely respected neurologist and neuroscientist at UCSF. His team recently published a seminal scientific paper in the prestigious journal Nature showing that individuals exposed to a very specific and proprietary videogame protocol could reverse age-related declines in global measures of cognition in a lasting fashion.

Critical points:

  1. The gaming protocol was able to generate not only improvement in the skills required to play the game, but these newly learned skills transferred into more global measures of overall cognitive capabilities.
  2. The newly acquired cognitive capabilities lasted for a long time after game training sessions stopped (up to 6 months).
  3. Not any ordinary videogame can produce these results. The game has to be specifically designed with “stimulation parameters” embedded into it that trigger certain neurological reactions in the brain that cause neuroplasticity to occur. It has to be specific and exact in order to work.

To oversimplify, neuroplasticity enhancement, or “brain training,” appears to be like other forms of training: just doing a bunch of running, weight lifting, and snowboarding doesn’t turn you into an Olympic snowboarder like Shaun White. Sure, you have to run, weightlift, and board to become Shaun White, but that is not enough. You have to train specifically to do a triple cork on the halfpipe in order to succeed. Similarly, the brain training experiences that cause improvements in memory or attention have to be very specifically designed and executed in order to improve cognition. And these tricks are just now being invented and refined.

Future of neuroplasticity: Experiential Technology (XTech)

I predict that in the very near future rigorous neuroscientific studies will very specifically demonstrate the types of stimulation parameters related to light, sound, sensation, and cognitive tasks that cause the brain to rewire in adaptive ways – and which do not. These insights will enable programmers to embed these stimulation parameters imperceptibly into immersive videogames. Games that are tricked out in this way will become very powerful enhancers of neuroplasticity in the brain. These videogames will be so potent that their therapeutic capabilities will match or exceed the chemical effects of neuropharmaceuticals or the electrical effects of today’s neurostimulation devices. Not only will those who simply want to improve the performance of their brains benefit, but these turbocharged experiential technologies will develop into an entirely new category of XTech that will benefit individuals with clinical conditions such as ADHD, autism, and depression.

I think of XTech as: supercomputing technology plus neuroscientific knowledge packaged into an immersive, virtual reality experience delivered to the brain to enhance neuroplasticity and brain function. I predict that this will have an enormous potential to improve the human condition.