Virtual reality (VR) continues to expand its uses in medicine, specifically in treatments for psychological conditions such as trauma, phobias, and eating disorders. Technology is also emerging as a tool in creative arts therapies. In one of the first such studies, researchers from the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science, and Health Systems examined the differences in activation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) between two different drawing tasks in VR. with the introduction of a calming fragrance stimulus.
The results of the study indicated significant differences between a rote tracking task and a creative self-expression task, with the rote tracking task showing an increase in PFC activity. It also showed that there was reduced PFC activation for self-expressive creative tasks, indicating a possible relaxation response.
“The study shows that repetitive tasks, such as memory tracing, can improve focus and self-expressive creative tasks can reduce the PFC load and induce relaxation and flow. The findings provide evidence of therapeutic aspects of the creative expression of themselves, ”said Girija Kaimal, lead author of the study, an associate professor at the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
Because virtual reality causes participants to temporarily detach themselves from their physical reality in a virtual space, the sense of smell was considered in this study as a shocking stimulus and also to promote a sense of awareness and connection to the ground. during artistic creation tasks. Although there was no significant impact of overall fragrance on PFC activation, emerging differences in fragrance response capacity were seen by age and sex. A fragrance, which consisted of a mixture of essential oils, was diffused into the laboratory in alternating weeks and dissipated 30 minutes after turning off the diffuser.
Study participants included 24 adults (18 women and six men) aged 18 to 54 years. They attended two one-hour sessions, scheduled at least a week apart. Participants were blinded by the fragrance stimulus and were assigned to receive the fragrance condition or non-fragrance of the first session using a simple randomization plan.
During the sessions, participants wore an optical brain image sensor, their own infrared functional spectroscopy (fNIRS), to measure brain function while engaging in VR art creation. fNIRS has been used to control underlying mechanisms in neuronal functioning, including creativity and neuronal functioning. The PFC of each participant was monitored throughout the time that participants committed to artistic and rest conditions. fNIRS served as an objective biomarker of PFC activation in response to drawing tasks. Participants also wore VR headsets, with manual control equipment, which used Google’s virtual Tilt Brush program to create 3D drawings in VR.
“Portable optical neuroimaging allows brain function to be measured continuously during VR use and allows for the study of natural dynamic processes such as the creation of art in virtual spaces,” said Hasan Ayaz, PhD, associate professor at the School of ‘Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and co-author of the study.
The session facilitator, an art therapist, read from a protocol script with step-by-step instructions for the two virtual reality drawing tasks. Partial tracing consisted of tracing basic shapes in a pre-drawn virtual template, while creative self-expression consisted of participants creating an adapted version of the scribble drawing technique, an approach often used in art therapy to encourage creativity and spontaneous artistic expression. Each drawing task lasted approximately five minutes, and participants completed both tasks during the session. The directives were also created to align with the experimental method that would allow comparable conditions between the memory task and the creative task.
“The findings also highlight how drawing tasks can potentially be used in tandem to involve different brain networks in patients,” Kaimal said.
The study, “Exploratory fNIRS Assessment of Differences in Activation in Virtual Reality Visual Self-Expression Included with a Fragrance Stimulus,” was recently published in Art Therapy. In addition to Kaimal and Ayaz, co-authors include Katrina Carroll-Haskins, Yigit Topoglu, and Asli Arslanbek, PhD students; and Arun Ramakrishnan, PhD, from Drexel University.
The study was jointly funded by Drexel University and the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) of the Pedersen Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Here you can see additional research on virtual reality and smell, conducted by Kaimal and the team in collaboration with Susan Magsamen, executive director of IAM Lab.