Moving America Forward

Your Brain on Virtual Reality

January 11, 2018
Your Brain on Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is being used to create empathy, manage pain and raise awareness around critical social issues. Photo by Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images
Can the technology change how people approach hot button topics?

It was famed critic Roger Ebert who first who first called film “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” But over the past few years another medium has begun to claim that mantle: virtual reality.

As the kickoff to the winter film festival season approaches, a wave of new projects promises to immerse viewers in different worlds that help them better connect with subjects. But VR’s power to stoke empathy reaches further than just the movie industry. Even as far back as 1992 the federal government recognized the impact VR can have on military training exercises.

Journalists, activists and doctors are among those using the technology to bring about action around some of today’s social issues.

Solitary Confinement

In 2016, The Guardian was rolling through an online and print series on life in solitary confinement. The newspaper’s stories, videos and podcasts appeared around the same time that Albert Woodfox, a 69-year-old man who had spent over four decades in solitary confinement, was released from prison, renewing the debate on how the U.S. treats its prisoners.

As part of their series, The Guardian produced its first VR project, called “6×9,” which simulates the experience of being held in isolation for 23 hours a day, every day. “People hadn’t thought the cell would be so bad, or so small,” Francesca Panetta, The Guardian’s executive editor for virtual reality, told the Digital News Initiative last year. “They didn’t realize that people were in for nonviolent crimes, or for so long.”

Since then, other news organizations have used VR to explore the psychological toll that isolation can have, such as 2017’s After Solitary, produced in part by PBS’s Frontline.


In an immersive virtual reality film, Planned Parenthood shows viewers what it’s like to be harassed and insulted while entering the clinic for an abortion.Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America


It’s one thing to hear about the throngs of angry protesters that confront women who visit abortion clinics. It’s another to experience that vitriol for yourself.

Across the Line” was produced by Planned Parenthood and debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Featuring real audio of protesters outside of clinics, the VR film gives viewers a first-hand experience of what it’s like to access an abortion while being harassed, cajoled and insulted.

In one screening, a Republican lawmaker was so visibly shaken by the film that he stormed out of the room, says Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Experience and the executive producer of “Across the Line.”

“Seventy percent of the people I showed [the film to] were in tears,” she tells NationSwell. “I am not a filmmaker; I’m a public health person. I did not have any idea about the emotional impact that a seven-minute VR piece would have on the viewers.”

Pain Management

As the number of Americans addicted to painkillers and other opioids remains a significant problem, VR is providing drug-free pain management to hospital patients. The Virtual Relief Organization, a project sponsored by the Center for Social Change, brings VR headsets to medical facilities at no cost, allowing patients to simulate the experience of traveling to destinations around the world as part of their recovery process.

The technology may even be helpful in revealing injuries that doctors have a nearly impossible time diagnosing, such as mild concussions caused by small impact during athletics or military training.

The company Sync-Think recently received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start using headsets to track eye movements when an injury has been sustained. The technology, Eye-Sync, records, views and analyzes eye movements and can analyze brain health in 60 seconds, according to the company.

“The EYE-SYNC technology was initially developed to identify changes in brain function after injury,” founder and Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Jamshid Ghajar says in a press release. “However its application has evolved significantly in recent years, and we intend to leverage our core technology to expand the many ways we can help people get the most out of their daily life activities.”

For the time being, the verdict is still out on whether the form can truly change how people think and act. You can, however, say it’s entertaining and seems to be helping in some way.