The benefits of virtual reality: perception, cognition and emotion

When we think about VR, we often tend to associate it with gaming, entertainment and fun. Although it was born for these purposes, it has gradually taken off in different contexts, where it brought incredible advantages.

The automotive sector, for instance, uses virtual reality to design safer vehicles; in architecture, it is used to build more resistant buildings; travel agencies use it to simplify the planning of stays abroad. VR can also be used in art and culture to engage people, and in fitness to stimulate workout, so making it much more fun.

It is no coincidence that even doctors and psychologists are experimenting with VR to find effective solutions to various disorders and problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and social disorders, and that’s not all: it has been proven that VR is an invaluable support tool during chemotherapy cycles.

Moreover, VR can help people with physical disabilities, so that they can rediscover certain functions of their body.

The benefits of virtual reality

The application of VR in all these fields shows the impact it can have and the benefits it can bring.

What are these benefits and why is VR so effective?

The main feature of virtual reality is the fact that it allows to experience self-presence: the user feels inside the experience, is completely immersed in it and can interact with the environment.

This is stimulated by the perceptive, cognitive and emotional processes associated with virtual experience: by involving all the senses, the virtual representation is perceived as authentic, creates a sense of existence within this environment and can alienate people from reality.

All these factors make VR a feature that can help concretely, also and above all, in different clinical pathologies, as many medicine studies have shown.

VR and autism

Researchers at the University of Texas have created a program that uses VR to support children suffering from autism and help them develop socialization skills.

After putting children in a context where very good socializing skills are required ─ such as work environments or appointments with virtual friends ─, and after monitoring brain waves with sophisticated equipment, it came out that brain areas related to the social sphere were “awakened” through the use of VR.

VR and surgery

In 2014, Doctor Shafi Ahmed of the Royal Hospital in London performed the first surgery which was streamed and is usable in virtual reality.

The event, as well as having billions of views and being much participated around the world, marked a turning point in surgery, allowing millions of people to enter the operating room. The doctor himself founded an association called Medical Realities, with the aim of changing medicine, by exploiting all the new technologies and so create an innovative and cutting-edge learning method accessible to young doctors, with a considerable reduction in costs and waste.

VR and chemotherapy

The physical and psychological effects of chemotherapy treatments can be devastating. Among various solutions to alleviate treatment disorders, the benefits of VR are being studied as well.

All the studies carried out on this subject have in common the use of the VR headset, the choice among several scenarios and the possibility to stop the treatment if it’s not tolerated. Some studies have even introduced smells into the reproduced environments.

These research studies have all led to one great result: during the chemotherapy cycle, VR reduces respiratory distress symptoms and, perhaps most importantly, makes therapy time flow faster, allowing subjects to better tolerate the therapy sessions and reducing the psychological impact.

VR as a support for the elderly

VR is also being proved as a very valuable aid tool for the elderly, especially for their balance problems that often compromise mobility.

The University of North Carolina conducted a research using VR headsets to help the elderly, and more generally people with neurodegenerative diseases, avoid falls. It seems, in fact, that VR makes possible to identify balance problems in advance.

In order to provide further proof of this, researchers created VR environments and asked patients to walk on a treadmill in front of a large screen: during the walk, the visual flow was disturbed to simulate a fall. Thanks to some sensors, researchers were able to assess people’s ability to react on time. From the collected data, researchers could understand who had difficulties in maintaining the balance, and intervene on time, which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.

VR is making its way into our lives: we live virtual experiences in many contexts today, from the most entertaining to the most professional one.

The benefits VR brings are no longer negligible: it has the power to isolate us from reality but, at the same time, it activates all our senses and makes us plunge into a new world completely, giving us full awareness of our body and allowing us to fully interact with reality.

It’s not a mere “game” anymore.

The scientific community has noticed that and is doing everything possible to understand how to use it for greater issues.  

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