UnReal: Investigating the Sense of Reality

We all rely on our senses to convey veridical information about the world around us, which we call “Reality”. However, distortions of reality in the form of hallucinations or illusions originating from neurological, psychiatric, pharmacological or psychological origins are prevalent. Thus, the sense of reality which is the ability to discriminate between true and false perceptions of the world, is a central criterion for neurological and psychiatric health. Despite the critical role of the sense of reality in our daily life, little is known about how this is formed in the mind and brain. The UnReal project explores the phenomenological, computational and neural processes underlying the Sense of Reality (SoR). We employ a specialized virtual reality environment allowing precise and controlled manipulations of visual reality across different domains. Using this VR platform, we are building a phenomenological and computational model of SoR. We will then use this framework to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying SoR by combining our VR paradigm with high resolution fMRI. Finally, we will investigate conditions of altered SoR, either of psychiatric origin or pharmacological origin. Here, we will test SoR under conditions of altered reality processing in schizophrenia patients with hallucinations and in a pharmacological model through administration of ketamine in healthy participants. This project will have important implications not only in defining a neurocognitive model of reality in healthy and clinical populations, but also shedding new light upon the fundamental philosophical question of “how do we know what is real?”.

The Neural and Cognitive Foundations of the Self

Healthy humans have a sense of self, a unified  and embodied entity through which we experience the world. However, the neural and cognitive mechanisms which create and maintain this sense of self are yet poorly understood. At the lab we have several projects in which using virtual reality and bodily illusions we investigate how the sense of self is formed and maintained by the brain. 

The Abnormal Sense of Self

While the sense of self is a robust construct it is sometimes altered in psychiatric and neurological disorders. Schizophrenia patients often experience a loss of self, in which the demarcation between self and other is weakened resulting in symptoms such as auditory hallucinations or the sense that someone is controlling their actions. At the lab we study how the sense of self is modified in psychosis and Parkinson's disease patients and how this is related to predictive processing of sensorimotor signals.

Modifying the Sense of Self - "Disembodied Cognition"

Modern technology allows us to extend our experiences far beyond our bodies. We can now sense and act through technological proxies enabling us to "expand" our self further than ever before. Yet how these novel transformations of the self change the mind and how they modify our cognition and behaviour is not yet known. We are now investigating how "Disembodied Cognition" encompassing these novel states affects how we behave

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© 2017 by Roy Salomon