Emotional rollercoaster

Immersive virtual reality allows scientists to study human emotions in more realistic circumstances.

Illustration showing a participant using virtual reality glasses with an EEG recording as the background. Image credit: Hofmann, Klotzsche, Mariola et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Human emotions are complex and difficult to study. It is particularly difficult to study emotional arousal, this is, how engaging, motivating, or intense an emotional experience is. To learn how the human brain processes emotions, researchers usually show emotional images to participants in the laboratory while recording their brain activity. But viewing sequences of photos is not quite like experiencing the dynamic and interactive emotions people face in everyday life.

New technologies, such as immersive virtual reality, allow individuals to experience dynamic and interactive situations, giving scientists the opportunity to study human emotions in more realistic settings. These tools could lead to new insights regarding emotions and emotional arousal.

Hofmann, Klotzsche, Mariola et al. show that virtual reality can be a useful tool for studying emotions and emotional arousal. In the experiment, 37 healthy young adults put on virtual reality glasses and ‘experienced’ two virtual rollercoaster rides. During the virtual rides, Hofmann, Klotzsche, Mariola et al. measured the participants' brain activity using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG). Then, the participants rewatched their rides and rated how emotionally arousing each moment was. Three different computer modeling techniques were then used to predict the participant’s emotional arousal based on their brain activity.

The experiments confirmed the results of traditional laboratory experiments and showed that the brain’s alpha waves can be used to predict emotional arousal. This suggests that immersive virtual reality is a useful tool for studying human emotions in circumstances that are more like everyday life. This may make future discoveries about human emotions more useful for real-life applications such as mental health care.