Virtual Reality is Neuroactive: An Experiental Technology for Programming Perception

The information age has created a pressing need for us to speed up and improve the accuracy of how we exchange information and process it into knowledge. How can we most efficiently impart knowledge to others? How can we accelerate learning? Experiential technologies such as virtual and augmented reality will help unlock our own potential and that of the population around us.

Perceptual awareness engenders knowledge creation

Is that loud boom and sudden flash an explosion — or just thunder and lightning nearby? The human brain and mind continuously process the intake from our surroundings. Data streams of light, sound, pressure, and vibration enter our sensorium and are immediately and often autonomously processed by the brain into perceptions. Perceptions then enable the transformation of that information into knowledge. And, in turn, knowledge expands our potential as human beings.

Perception is a key node in this system that we are able to proactively tap into in powerful new ways. Experiential technology such as virtual reality is the means of intervention.

Virtual reality imparts specific and potent information into the sensorium that the brain subsequently processes. Unlike the ephemeral or chance nature of many real world experiences, virtual information can be programmed and presented to the brain in carefully selected and reproducible ways to precisely impact perceptions.  These programmed perceptions can allow for new modalities for accelerated knowledge acquisition.

Perceptual shifts enabled by virtual reality can create empathy

Recent scientific studies have shown that virtual reality can create empathy by altering the perceptions that individuals have for others by changing their sex or race in virtual reality. Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University is studying how virtual reality can generate empathy for individuals with disabilities in his Virtual Human Interaction Lab. His work and that of others have also studied how to foster empathy in a variety of scenarios, such as environmental issues. For example, empathy can be engendered for deforestation by having individuals experience cutting down trees in virtual reality and ocean pollution by virtually swimming as a fish through dirty water.

As we begin to think about the brain as a programmable platform, virtual reality is a useful and efficient development engine. Virtual reality is a neuroactive technology that allows us to selectively alter and enhance perception in rapid and profound ways. The careful development of virtual reality software that is informed by and infused with neuroscience can expand our capabilities for empathy and will have a transformative effect on society.