Technology 4 min read

Here's How VR Hypnoanalgesic Experiences are Advancing Neurological Research

Award winning artist Kevin Mack believes VR art offers better brain mapping. Is this intersection of technology and art the next step in neural research?

Quietword | Shutterstock.com

Quietword | Shutterstock.com

The intersection of art and neurological research has really taken a turn since VR technology has enabled neural entraining experiences to be combined with sensory deprivation. 

It is no secret that scientists are exploring alternative solutions to biological issues using new-age technologies. It is also widely accepted that art can have distinct effects on the brain. We don’t have to wait until 2020 to see the intersection of these two concepts. This kind of neural research is happening right now.

So what happens to your brain while it explores VR art experiences?

Kevin Mack's Zen Parade VR video has been used as a hypnoanalgesic in awake brain surgeryClick To Tweet
image of neural network in brain for article on how VR is advancing neural research
ColiN00B | Pixabay

VR as More Than a Visual Experience

Visual effects and graphic artist Kevin Mack is what you might call an “early adopter”. Not only was he one of the first artists to exploit 3D printing, his work on What Dreams May Come won him an Academy Award.

His work has since exemplified VR graphic art with projects like Blortasia, which some people see as a truly meditative, therapeutic experience.

In the game, the user experiences an array of colors and ever-changing patterns in a series of tunnels. The topography remains the same, but the game mimics a psychedelic or transcendental experience. As a result of this, the brain engages in a kind of “neural entertainment”.

In fact, Mack argues that the structures and objects in these experiences speak to the neural structures in our brain. The experience elicits familiarity in our right brains, and the sensation is so strong that our left brains take a back seat.

But it isn’t just an immersive experience.

By the way, if you don’t already listen to the Voices of VR podcast, check it out here. It goes much deeper into considering the implications of Mack’s work, even comparing it to some of Immanuel Kant’s theories.

VR as a Therapy Tool and Research Resource

image of brain mapping for article on how VR is advancing neural research
USC Stevens Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics

Music, video games, and even fidget spinners are all considered alternative therapy methods. Due to the interactive nature of VR, virtual reality video games like Blortasia are a natural fit.

Mack collaborated with neuroscientists for his project Zen Parade. More than just the latest release from ShapeSpaceVR, this project has relaxation capabilities and research applications. We tried it, and we were shocked to experience the “therapuetic” and “exciting” effects that Mack says many people have.

In Zen Parade, there is no objective or control. Instead, the user explores a landscape of constantly changing sculptures, as well as 360-degree yet still artworks.

image of Grilled Cheesus from TV Show Glee for article on how VR is advancing neural research
Grilled Cheesus | Glee via Glee Forum | 20th Century Fox

Interacting with your surroundings (coupled with specific music) enables something called pareidolia. This is essentially when the brain perceives patterns that don’t exist. Think of the “Man in the Moon” or “Grilled Cheesus”.

But Mack and his cohorts actually had another purpose behind the experience: mapping brain activity. The game serves as a hypoalgesic or hypnoanalgesic which dulls sensitivity to pain-inducing stimuli. However, it also suppresses processes of the left brain in order for scientists to better map right brain processes.

Distraction Therapy, Pain Management, & Brain Mapping

Not only does Mack’s work contain distraction therapy uses, it aims to help us gain insight into why we think, act, and feel the ways we do. Though ShapeSpaceVR aims to replicate transcendental experiences, combining Zen Parade with psychedelics might provide a more immersive experience. 

A lot of people already pair VR experiences with psychedelic drugs. If you want to learn more about these so-called “Psychonauts”, read this article.

While Mack wants to further experiment with neural networks embedded in his art, others are pursuing more research using VR tech. Beyond right and left brain process interaction, we can use VR to understand social aspects of the brain, too.

And don’t forget about these cute mice from 2015. This experiment conducted by HHMI Janelia Research Campus in Virginia also utilized tunnels just like Blortasia does.

What was your experience with Zen Parade and/or Blortasia? We’re super curious about how it made you feel. 

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Juliet Childers

Content Specialist and EDGY OG with a (mostly) healthy obsession with video games. She covers Industry buzz including VR/AR, content marketing, cybersecurity, AI, and many more.

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  1. TonyVT SkarredGhost November 09 at 1:50 pm GMT

    Interesting article. And when VR will be paired with BCI, things will become even more interesting…

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