Your Brain on VR: Mindfulness in Nature

Popular articles that discuss brainwaves in relation to states of consciousness often simplify matters by indicating that there are four types of brain waves: Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta.  Delta, Theta and Alpha can all be considered “slow” brainwaves.  When they are dominant, the brain is often in a more relaxed or quiet state.  Beta and brainwaves faster than beta, such as high beta or gamma, can be considered “fast” brainwaves.  When these are dominant, the brain is active and engaged.

We need these brainwaves to be flexible and fluid, shifting and changing with whatever task we give our brain.  For example, when it is time to rest we expect slow brainwaves to increase and fast brainwaves to decrease.  When we are balancing the checkbook or making an important decision, we expect the opposite pattern.

By measuring brainwaves before and after a specific task or experience, we can get a picture of how the brain was impacted; did it become more alert and aroused or more relaxed and quiet?

We wanted to know how the brain responds when someone engages in a virtual reality meditation, so we used quantitative EEG technology to tell us.

First we oriented our volunteer subject to Virtual Reality by having them watch 2 different StoryUp immersive stories. After the orientation we obtained a baseline measurement of their brainwaves using a 19 channel EEG system.  The volunteer then participated in a 4 minute mindfulness in nature experience after which we measured the brainwaves one more time.

Overall, the results showed a significant quieting of the brain after experiencing the brief VR meditation, measured by decreases in fast activity (gamma) and increases in slow activity (theta and alpha). This, by itself, was impressive given the relatively brief exposure to the meditation.  Perhaps more importantly, an analysis of specific brain regions impacted by the VR meditation showed that areas of the brain involved in the stress response were some of the most significantly impacted.

Below are 3D brain images showing changes in the brain after the VR meditation. Cooler colors (blues) indicate that the activity measured has decreased whereas brighter colors (yellow, orange, red) indicate that activity has increased.

The first picture is looking at fast brainwave activity (gamma) in the anterior cingulate.  Blue colors indicate that gamma activity decreased significantly during the meditation.  This is important because this part of the brain often becomes overactivated during stress and anxiety or when we become fixated on thoughts, feelings or behaviors. By helping this area to relax, the brain is shifting into a more relaxed, peaceful state.
VR brain1

In the next image, we switch from examining fast brainwaves to looking at slow brainwaves. In particular, we are looking at alpha activity in the Precuneus.  This part of the brain is the hub of the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN).  When the DMN is quieter, as seen here, this suggests that the person is not thinking about themselves (or their worries) as much, which is exactly what we would hope to see during this experience.

VR brain2

These results provide preliminary evidence that this type of technology can have a nearly immediate impact on the stress response. We are in the process of developing a range of VR meditations with different environments, lengths and guided instructions to help people manage stress, improve their sleep and reduce pain. As these experiences become available we will study their impact on brainwaves and other measures of physiology including heart rate variability, muscle tension and skin conductance.  Stay tuned!

Dr. Jeff Tarrant is the Chief Psychologist for StoryUP VR.

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