This is an excerpt from Finding Mastery #109 in which the founder of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson, shares how he creates positive VR experiences for people.


Michael Gervais: Let’s go to imagery for a minute. Close your eyes and you imagine something that’s taking place and it’s that thing that can get your heart rate to pump within just a couple of seconds. Right.

Jeremy Bailenson: Right.

Michael Gervais: Ok. So that for me is a visceral experience of training one’s brain, mind, emotional center, and body. Right. When we do that mental imagery, we think at least, that we’re going to actually grease a groove. Right. So whatever that means to have pattern recognition, to have motor neuron activation right, so the technical…

Jeremy Bailenson: The premotor cortex

Michael Gervais: Exactly. Okay and I’m saying all of this like I know what I’m talking about. The brightest minds in this space are still saying, “I think… I think that this is what it is.” Ok so that being said, when you close your eyes you get a visceral experience. It’s as if you’re actually in it. Now, we intuitively know that, but now you’ve created a technology that can manipulate what somebody is actually seeing and experiencing. Is that a fair statement?

Jeremy Bailenson: I don’t love the word manipulate but everything you’re saying is accurate. When we think about imagery, when you’re imagining an experience sometimes you can nail it, but it’s hard to do imagery correct.

Michael Gervais: That’s right because the drunk monkey of our mind wanders.

Jeremy Bailenson: It wanders

Michael Gervais: It thinks about my back, it thinks about groceries, it thinks about am I doing it right and it’s hard to stay focused.

Jeremy Bailenson: There’s that aspect but then let’s pretend you’re an athlete in a slump. You can’t visualize success. Let’s pretend you’re a patient with a horrible affliction that hurts your limbs. You can’t visualize moving them so…

Michael Gervais: Because it’s hard to recover it? Is that the thought?

Jeremy Bailenson: So, one of the studies I want to talk about we just published  – my grad student Andrea Stevenson Wan. She just published a paper in a journal called Pain Medicine.

It was about children with chronic regional pain syndrome. That’s this horrible CRPS, this horrible affliction, where you have an affected limb and you can’t move the limb. The way to treat this, the way to try to alleviate the pain, is you force them to move the affected limb.

It’s nature’s Catch 22. You’re in pain but the way to reduce the pain is by putting yourself in more pain to move the limb. So Andrea created a VR simulation where the kid looks down from the first person perspective, sees her-self Avatar and we put a gain factor on movement.

Imagine that you have to move your right leg and you can move it 10 degrees and that’s all you can do because you’re in such agony. In VR we move it 20 degrees.

We give you an exaggerated sense of what Albert Bandura would call self-efficacy, the belief that you can do it.

Micahel Gervais: Ok but the physical leg is not moving at all?

Jeremy Bailenson: It depends on how bad kids have it. Some kids can’t move their legs at all. The way we solve that is we swap arms and legs. We have them move their physical arm and that moves the virtual legs so they get agency and they get to visualize the leg moving but they don’t do the agony. Some kids actually can move it 10 degrees. Then they move the physical leg 10 degrees but their seeing it move 20.

Michael Gervais: I love it. Ok so that’s creating a whole new neural pattern that’s different. It’s no different than what we’ve done in swimming. We’ll connect a swimmer into a harness and pull them faster than they actually go. So then the brain says, Oh my god, I can do that.” And there’s other sports that are doing stuff as well.


Full podcast available here.


Founding Director at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab |

Jeremy Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication, Professor of Education, Professor Program in Symbolic Systems, a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and a Faculty Leader at Stanford’s Center for Longevity.