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Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2019 Jan;22(1):82-96. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2017.29099.gri. Epub 2018 Sep 5.

Neuroscience of Virtual Reality: From Virtual Exposure to Embodied Medicine.

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1 Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Lab, IRCCS Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Milan, Italy.
2 Department of Psychology, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy.
3 Virtual Reality Medical Center, La Jolla, California.
4 Virtual Reality Medical Institute, Brussels, Belgium.
5 Department of Human Sciences for Education, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy.


Is virtual reality (VR) already a reality in behavioral health? To answer this question, a meta-review was conducted to assess the meta-analyses and systematic and narrative reviews published in this field in the last twenty-two months. Twenty-five different articles demonstrated the clinical potential of this technology in both the diagnosis and the treatment of mental health disorders: VR compares favorably to existing treatments in anxiety disorders, eating and weight disorders, and pain management, with long-term effects that generalize to the real world. But why is VR so effective? Here, the following answer is suggested: VR shares with the brain the same basic mechanism: embodied simulations. According to neuroscience, to regulate and control the body in the world effectively, the brain creates an embodied simulation of the body in the world used to represent and predict actions, concepts, and emotions. VR works in a similar way: the VR experience tries to predict the sensory consequences of an individual's movements, providing to him/her the same scene he/she will see in the real world. To achieve this, the VR system, like the brain, maintains a model (simulation) of the body and the space around it. If the presence in the body is the outcome of different embodied simulations, concepts are embodied simulations, and VR is an embodied technology, this suggests a new clinical approach discussed in this article: the possibility of altering the experience of the body and facilitating cognitive modeling/change by designing targeted virtual environments able to simulate both the external and the internal world/body.

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