I went to E3 with a neuroscientist so we could talk about the impact of video games and virtual reality on our brains, but what I discovered about the future was truly fascinating

T. Sigi Hale, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist at innovation lab Thriveplan whose research has direct implications for understanding the effects of video games, augmented reality and virtual reality on the brain. Who better to go to E3 with, the world’s largest video game industry convention?

I met Sigi outside Nokia Theatre in Downtown L.A. on a hot, sunny SoCal June day. Before we walked the E3 floor at the L.A. Convention Center we sat down to discuss Sigi’s work. And naturally, we started the conversation talking about cows.

“What do you think a Texas Beef Rancher sees when he sees a cow?” Sigi asked me. “He sees food, right? It’s beef, he’s a beef rancher of course. Now in India, the cow looks the same. It’s a cow, perhaps even the exact same breed of cow as in Texas. It looks identical in every way. The Hindu in India, and the Beef Rancher in Texas both see the same ‘sensory thing’. But it means something radically different between them. The Hindu experiences a sacred animal. The Texas Beef Rancher experiences food. The raw data of the visualization of the cow gets coded in our brains into two very different ideas. Culture, language, perspective, education, and heritage, these things are the software in our brains, and the software outputs the ideas that connect with the raw data our senses input. And the thing about our brains is that they can be developed and shaped, just like software. Virtual Reality is going to develop our neural software in rapid and powerful ways, beyond our wildest imaginations.”

Pre virtual reality, our ideas lived exclusively in our heads, or were portrayed via some form of abstract rendering (writing or visual media). Post virtual reality, our ideas will increasingly be delivered as direct sensory experiences that our brains will interpret as the raw data of life.

The boundary between our manufactured ideas and the sensory ‘facts on the ground’ will be broken. We will, for the first time in our history, be manufacturing both our ideas AND our direct sensory experience.  This will give us an unprecedented power to influence how our brains function and come to understand reality.

cow_graphic

Sigi went on to explain that through his work he often considers how video games could influence different aspects of brain functioning. He noted that different brain states emphasize different abilities, and that video games could influence the relative expression of these states. For example, there’s our Cave Man Brain, as he called it; the part of our brain that is fight-or-flight, the battle orientation that exists as our survival instinct, often the force behind negative drives for power and dominance in society. Then there’s the Cognitive Brain, the verbally weighted part of our brain that brings reason and rationale for the decisions we make every day. And then there’s the Empathetic Brain, our ability to show compassion and experience connection and beauty in the world. Balancing brain states that bear these different abilities is important to our well being, and an individual that can efficiently induce and regulate transitions between them is more likely to be psychologically healthy and to make positive contributions to the world around them.

“Now the thing about our brain” Sigi continued, “is that it can be molded. Our brain is not static. In many ways, it’s a lump of clay. It can be shaped. During the early stages of our evolution, our brains’ software was being written at a relatively slow pace as core survival instincts and behaviors were being worked out. But with the introduction of language we gained the ability to quickly write software (ideas) that impact how we interpret and respond to sensory input, and with the advent of the printing press and mass communication this ‘code’ could then be rapidly shared. We became open source idea-coders. In the last 25 years, with the introduction of the computer, video games, and the Internet, we are now also ‘experience coders’.  We are manufacturing both the input-data (sensory content) and the interpretation software (ideas). We can impact the entire stimulus-response circuit.  With this change, we’ve gained a significantly greater capacity to develop and influence our brain function - at a pace that humanity has never seen before. The question I have is: are we going to use this opportunity to evolve more balanced brains and become a more caring and compassionate society, or are we going to use this new technology to devolve into an unbalanced Cave Man state, essentially training ourselves to dominate and oppress.”

As we entered E3 I couldn’t help think about his question. It rang eerily true under banners promoting Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Halo 5, fan-boys in military outfits and over-sized alien replica guns. It would seem that our Cave Man brain is being amply exercised.

We walked up to the Oculus VR booth in the West Hall. The line-up for a short trial of the virtual reality headset went around the booth and down the hall. There were hundreds of fans anxious to try Facebook’s recently acquired consumer electronics company, with promises to bring virtual reality to every living room in America and the world. The consumer version of the virtual reality glasses is expected to hit Best Buy in Q1 2016.

Just beside the Oculus booth was Virtuix Omni. This giant video game accessory allows gamers to get inside a cage-like device that safely surrounds a player while they walk, run, jump and turn in place, providing an immersive, full-body virtual reality experience. All of your physical actions are replicated in the game with audio, visual and even touch senses (you’re holding a gun and pulling a trigger) replicated virtually.

“Now here’s a great example of how we’re rapidly developing our brains with new technology” said Sigi. “The player can be fully immersed in a flight or flight circumstance for periods of time that would be biologically impossible in real life.  Moreover, the specific manner of navigating that circumstance is highly prescribed.” Sigi pointed at the TV monitor as we watched the first person military shooter transpire in real-time.

“So, we’re seeing intensive development of the Cave Man brain in a specific manner. As he plays, he’s training his neural circuitry to make decisions that reward his reflexes to violence. It’s not necessarily the violence that’s the issue in terms of brain development, but rather that the game isn’t rewarding the exercise of control over diverse states. The virtual reality immersion in this game might be training the brain to stay within the Cave Man brain too often and for too long, reducing the capacity to jump to other states. Over time, and at this level of input immersion, this can change the brain’s structure and function. With such technology we can impact our capacity to switch between fight/flight and empathy-conducive states, especially during tense, survival moments, where balance of such states may be critical to making humane decisions.”

Sigi and I talked about the vilification of the video game industry. Violence in video games has already had a bad rap and science hasn’t necessarily proven that there’s a link between violent video game content, and violent offenders. However, Sigi stressed how his and others’ research suggests a direct relation to brain alteration through prolonged immersive video game experience – particularly so because, within virtual reality, the biological constraints that normally limit the depth and duration of such experiences are largely absent. One can train a certain brain state orientation to a depth and duration that is impossible in the real world. But from his point of view, this isn’t a bad thing. He sees incredible opportunity for positive brain development, even therapy, leveraging this aspect of virtual reality.

“What’s fascinating about virtual reality” said Sigi, “is that it might be the key to unlocking new treatments for many different types of psychological problems. For the treatment of ADHD for instance, we have kids using intense drug treatments that have side effects. By using virtual reality we could manufacture experiences that hyper-immerse such individuals in games that are both fun and that train their capacity to focus and learn. We could even take that a step further and explore how virtual reality and video games might be used to mold the physical substrates of brain function to help individuals with more serious hard-wired brain problems (e.g., Autism). For instance, virtual reality might help us to identify the exact point at which brain function fails within a given individual – and then create experiences that exercise the heck out of that circuitry, possibly helping the brain to re-wire itself. The power of these tools just simply has not yet been fully understood or explored.”

Sigi took it a step further: “Virtual reality might be the most important public health issue we have ever faced due to its ability to mold our brain function in such rapid, profound ways. It could be the key to either unlocking our potential and discovering savant-like superhuman abilities within all brains…or to devolving us into hyper-aggressive fight-or-flight cave-people. I’m not sure the video game industry understands the power that’s in its hands right now. V.R. can affect us in emotional and cognitive ways, it can change our wiring; we're talking about being able to shape how our brains interpret and experience reality. This is an incredible power that the video game industry has, and they have an ethical responsibility to learn how to do this right. I think with just a small tweak to some of these games, we could more positively use this tool. If first person-shooters had moments within the game that rewarded compassion and taught empathy, like in helping people within the game who are caught in a conflict, it would promote more balanced brain development. Video game companies could partner with neuroscientists and together we could make games that are both fun and that make better brains.  And, for those interested, we could also adapt V.R. technology to treat psychological issues, thereby opening up healthcare enterprises to the gaming world. Regardless, adapting gaming content to produce better brains and pro-social outcomes would certainly be good for the gaming industry’s bottom line. Just imagine if there was a game out there that could be scientifically validated as promoting greater intelligence, brain-state regulation, and an associated increased capacity for psychological well-being.” 

Ever the marketing strategist, I asked Sigi how we could use this technology now to help both the brands and the youth audiences that Fuel works to engage with every day. We talked about how simple additions to digital experiences could enhance brain development. Games like Minecraft already give kids a balanced immersive experience because it combines game mechanics of creativity, caring, and action, and requires users to switch between states. With augmented reality, we can positively develop brain capacity with digital engagement within every-day experiences. As Fuel integrates more Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, and Virtual Reality experiences into brands on almost every level, we are now thinking about how to positively expand brain development – take a brand experience, make it yield something more than simply a few extra people in the marketing funnel.

As we left the West Hall and walked out onto the street, I asked Sigi what he felt the future generation might believe when they see a cow. “The Beef Rancher will still see food, and the Hindu will still see a sacred animal (via their respective software), but if we can use video games and virtual reality in the right way, then they’ll also have a well-developed capacity to embrace a shared and fundamental experience of the same ‘sensory cow’ – the truth ‘that is’ before our respective software packages get a hold of the data.” One small step for bovine, one giant leap for mankind.

Jeff Roach is the Chief Strategy Officer & Group ECD of digital youth engagement agency, Fuel. Jeff helps brands around the world create meaningful digital experiences with global youth audiences. fuelyouth.com

Dr. T. Sigi Hale Ph.D is a neuroscientist at innovation lab Thriveplan, is previously an assistant professor at UCLA, and is the co-founder of BrainWise, LLC, with USC neuroscientist Dr. Jonas Kaplan. BrainWise is a neuroconsultancy firm that aims to bring the knowledge and power of neuroscience to help guide industries toward success and to promote the evolution of healthy brains. web: BrainWise.co; email: info@brainwise.co