Neuroscience research tells us that the human brain has evolved to a three-fold design. This three layered or ‘triune’ brain consists of the rearmost and oldest part called the ‘Reptilian’ brain, the middle ‘Limbic’ brain (or paleomammalian brain) and the most recently evolved brain segment, the pre-frontal lobes known collectively as the ‘Neocortex’.
Lizards among us
The reptilian part of the brain is the most primitive part of our brain, responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response when you’re confronted with danger. It’s also what makes you feel horny. a primitive instinct designed to make us reproduce. Most mammals and creatures have this part of the brain. Outputs from this area are subconscious, that is to say, we don’t actively think about them, it’s an autonomous response.
VR effect on the reptilian part of the brain? Totally smegging awesome! Horror games are bat-shit scary, heights will give you vertigo and you will feel uncomfortable when a virtual character (virtar) gets up close in your personal space. It turns out that this part of your brain is very easily fooled by VR systems, which probably explains how even old PC games like Alien VS Predator were terrifying despite the knowledge that it was after all ‘only a game’. The horror genre of VR games to come may require some form of warning for those of you with a nervous disposition, lose anal sphincter and/or irritable bowel syndrome.
The limbic system supports a variety of functions, including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction (smell). It appears to be primarily responsible for emotional life, and it has a great deal to do with the formation of memories. Imagine you’re about to chow down on some coco-pops and you get a whiff of some seriously curdled milk… this is the limbic brain processing the odour input signals from your nostrils, accessing your memories and matching that smell to that of repugnant milk and warning you that it’s going to taste like one of Gandhi’s flip flops.
VR effect on the Limbic system? As good as your Presence Enhancing Accessories (PEAs) allow. As with ordinary media such as films and TV, your behaviour in the virtual world will mostly be influenced by your reptilian brain responses and the your higher brain functions. A battle of head versus heart, your limbic system will provide the emotional response as expected unless something breaks the illusion. There’s nothing like the real world smells of sweaty socks and body odour to tear you out of the virtual world where you see rose petals and clean people. Conversely, having a nostril PEA spraying particles of Givenchy’s latest parfum “pétal de rose” at just the right time would provide the Limbic brain with the correct signals to convince you that the two-dimensional images projected from your VR headset on to your retinas, representing a rose petal, are the real McCoy, assuming no other illusion-breaking cues.
Neocortex – Know thyself
The subject of consciousness and freewill are central tenets of philosophy (René Descartes) and are a common subject in modern litterature and filmography (The Matrix, Necromancer (the novel)). The Neocortex is where all of this higher level thinking goes down. It is involved in functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Parts include the occipital lobe, which contains the primary visual cortex and the temporal lobe, which contains the primary auditory cortex.
It’s all about the PEAs man!
Sight and sound are two of the primary senses which govern our sense of location, so the effect of a good VR headset and headphones on the Neocortex is a very ‘real’ feeling of presence. However, in the ‘real world’, our brains use place cells (neurons) to build a cognitive map of our surroundings. Tests have shown a drop of more than 50% in the activity of these cells when using VR, demonstrating that tricking vestibular senses and other stimuli is also key to creating and maintaining the illusion.