Your Brain on Virtual Reality

Not just porn and video games: we explore the practical and not-so-practical applications of VR technology.

By: Rachel Smith | Photos: Spencer Pidgeon


Your brain accomplishes some pretty complex tasks on the daily. It keeps your heart pumping, your lungs inflating and processes somewhere around 50,000 thoughts a day. It’s jam-packed with 100 billion neurons and yet, if you strap virtual reality goggles to your head, your brain will not be able to distinguish a computer-generated experience from the real thing; your brain understands VR sensory information the same way it understands the real world. VR has arrived, and as the technology advances, you can trick your grey matter into experiencing increasingly ludicrous scenarios. Here are a few you could encounter in the near future.


Through the power of VR technology, you can now treat your phobias in a safe environment. Scared of public speaking? Practice delivering your speech in front of a room full of attentive avatars. You could even program them to appear in their digital underwear if that makes you more comfortable. Fear of heights? Approach that virtual precipice, risk free. Your brain will be facing your fears, conditioning you to deal with your phobias, all from the safety of a headset.


We’ve all wished at some point or another that our offensive colleague could see the world from someone else’s perspective,just once. Virtual reality now makes it possible for us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (albeit on the spot, tethered to a powerful computer). You can assume an avatar of a different body, gender or race, and experience the world from their perspective. You come face-to-face with your new simulated self in a virtual mirror, and interact with others from your new identity. Perhaps you’ll discover the repertoire of offside jokes reserved for the staff Christmas party are not that funny after all. Since your brain cannot distinguish between virtual reality and actual experiences, you can really experience life from another perspective.

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Soon, through the magic of VR, you will be able to travel to thehottest destinations – literally. You could vacation on the surface of the sun, or inside an active volcano. Virtual vacations will benefit your brain the same way an actual vacation does, but without the pitfalls of actual travel. Imagine no packing, invasive customs searches, airplane food or sunburns – just plug in and unplug. You’ll be left with amazing vacation memories that are indistinguishable from memories of actual trips you’ve taken. A scenario not unlike the plot of Total Recall.


Instead of just watching the horror play out on screen, you could be the star of your very own horror movie. During a typical scary movie, your heart rate spikes, your muscles tense and your brain releases cortisol, adrenaline and (oddly enough) dopamine. All this from watching Paris Hilton run for her bloody life. Imagine the physiological response you’d have when it’s you in the centre of the action, standing under a flickering light on an abandoned wharf, waiting for a demented longshoreman to jump from the shadows wielding a rusty harpoon. Serious adrenaline.

The potential of a technology that can deceive your brain is unlimited. Real experiences that were previously out of reach for the average person will become accessible. And absurd experiences that were not possible for anyone will be offered to everyone. And like all ground-breaking technologies, the impractical applications are certainly the most exciting.