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Nov 03, 2008

Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds

Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds: prefrontal brain regions differentially orchestrate presence experience in adults and children.

Front Hum Neurosci. 2008;2:8

Authors: Baumgartner T, Speck D, Wettstein D, Masnari O, Beeli G, Jäncke L

Virtual reality (VR) is a powerful tool for simulating aspects of the real world. The success of VR is thought to depend on its ability to evoke a sense of "being there", that is, the feeling of "Presence". In view of the rapid progress in the development of increasingly more sophisticated virtual environments (VE), the importance of understanding the neural underpinnings of presence is growing. To date however, the neural correlates of this phenomenon have received very scant attention. An fMRI-based study with 52 adults and 25 children was therefore conducted using a highly immersive VE. The experience of presence in adult subjects was found to be modulated by two major strategies involving two homologous prefrontal brain structures. Whereas the right DLPFC controlled the sense of presence by down-regulating the activation in the egocentric dorsal visual processing stream, the left DLPFC up-regulated widespread areas of the medial prefrontal cortex known to be involved in self-reflective and stimulus-independent thoughts. In contrast, there was no evidence of these two strategies in children. In fact, anatomical analyses showed that these two prefrontal areas have not yet reached full maturity in children. Taken together, this study presents the first findings that show activation of a highly specific neural network orchestrating the experience of presence in adult subjects, and that the absence of activity in this neural network might contribute to the generally increased susceptibility of children for the experience of presence in VEs.

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