The fourth episode of the Emotion Lab is dedicated to psychophysiology research. You will hear from Charles, a surgeon, and Stephen, a researcher with a background in neuroscience, psychophysiology and human factors/human-computer interaction.

Intrigued to know what psychophysiology is? Stephen explains what it means and the focus of research in this field. He also talks about the projects he’s currently working on, such as measuring emotions with VR, closed loop neuroadaptive technology, dynamic game difficulty adjustment as well as decision making.

Dynamic difficulty adjustment – the sweet spot

Today, researchers can use computer systems to engage participants in a game or simulation. For example, participants can be playing a game and the readings from EEG can be used to interpret how engaged the player was. If readings indicate that the person is bored – the game could automatically become more difficult. In contrast, if the readings indicate stress, the game could become easier. Stephen shares the example of the tetris experiment they’ve conducted to explain this. The goal of studies like this is to create a game that is highly engaging and thus distractive. Charles and Stephen discuss the implication of this kind of research for medicine, particularly pain management and pediatrics medicine. Stephen explains that finding an individual’s “sweet spot” – the threshold where the person is just at the limit of their performance, is crucial to high engagement and distraction.

Can VR really measure emotion?

VR enables researchers to induce emotional states and consequently measure participants’ emotions, mainly with facial electromyography (muscle activity in the face) and other biosensors with millisecond accuracy. Stephen is currently working with room scale VRs that allow for measurements of body movements and creation of a real-life experience. He aptly explains the challenges in collecting, measuring and integrating data using VR, such as issues with artefacts, movement and headsets constraining facial muscles. Stephen and Charles discuss some ideas for how innovation could be used to overcome those issues and they also shine a light on how COVID-19 has impacted research. As universities remain closed, many protocols have been revised and a lot of research has been postponed. In their discussions they consider the new adaptations that will have to take place as we begin to return normal life, including use of UV cleaning machines for the headsets to avoid the spread of infection between study participants.

Protecting data privacy

How can we ensure that sensitive data such as those from eye tracking and other biosensors are handled appropriately? From Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to the concept of benefit asymmetry, Stephen and Charles explore the topic of data confidentiality and Stephen explains how some measurements collected in VR labs could even indicate participant’s personality type and how such data could be potentially abused if commercial companies are able to access it. What’s the researcher point of view? What data rights should we be demanding? Tune in to hear Stephen’s and Charles’ opinions.

Is VR research the future?

What innovations are going to make the biggest impact in this field of research? Stephen’s opinion is that improvement of data collection is the key. Sensor technologies have evolved significantly over the last few years with accuracy  improving almost daily and neurological measurements, like EEG, now able to produce high quality data. However, the next challenge will be to make those sensors so convenient and minimalist that the study participants almost forget they’re being monitored. This way, researchers will be able to create real-life experiments.

Get in touch with the guest – Stephen Fairclough:

Stephen’s Podcast

Publications discussed in the episode:

Computer games for distraction from pain

Neuroadaptive tetris game

Physiological data privacy article from Nature

Stephen’s Podcast