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How does Virtual Reality tap into your sixth (or fifty third) sense?

Achieving immersion beyond sight and sound.

This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

When we talk about our senses, we usually think about Aristotle’s ‘Big Five’ - sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. But science suggests there are in fact many more others.

While most neurologists would generally agree on us having at least 9 senses, there are other schools of thought that increase that number significantly. Some researchers consider a model of 21 senses to be more accurate, by including additional physiological experiences such as our sense of hunger, thirst, color and even our sense of time. However, others have proposed as many as 53, recategorizing our senses into four broad groups based on our radiative, chemical, mental and feeling senses.

But despite all the debate, there are generally four additional senses beyond the ‘Big Five’ that neuroscientists will generally agree upon. These include Thermoception (our sense of heat), Nociception (our sense of pain) and Equilibrioception (our sense of balance). But it’s the fourth of these additional senses, Proprioception, that VR takes the most advantage of.

Simply put, proprioception is our sense of bodily awareness, our ability to know the position and movement of our body without having to look at it. It’s why you can close your eyes and still touch the tip of your nose. It’s powered by tiny sensory receptors, called proprioceptors, that live in our joints, muscles and tendons. These receptors are responsible for detecting the tension, strain and positioning of our limbs, and relaying a constant stream of that information back to our brains. This is why if you were to fall asleep on your arm, you may wake up with a temporary feeling as though you are missing a limb, as the pressure on your nerves and their blood supply has essentially choked off the flow of messages from your proprioceptors to your brain.

For the most part, it’s a sense we don’t ever have to think about using, and yet it’s a crucial component of how we can navigate the world around us. This is true for both the tangible worlds we exist in, as well as the digital worlds on offer thanks to virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Quest 2.

By embracing our inherent proprioception, virtual reality allows the user to bring a sense of their very own body into the game, allowing them to, in essence, become their avatar. And this has a crucial impact on their overall sense of embodiment - the ability to feel present and act in a virtual environment. The result is an overall increase in the user’s sense of immersion, convincing the mind that the virtual world is in fact real.

In fact, this effect is so convincing, that recent studies have shown VR experiences to induce similar physiological responses to the real world experiences they are based on. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to truly scale the side of a mountain or float through the vacuum of space, virtual reality may be able to offer you those same sensations from the comfort of your living room.

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