Jody Culham

Jody Culham, Canada Research Chair in Immersive NeuroscienceCanada Research Chair in Immersive Neuroscience
Tier 1 - June 2021 -
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

Office: WIRB 4118
Phone: 519-661-2111 ext. 85643


“Immersive neuroscience is moving brain research closer to the real world,” explained Culham, “Of course, the gold standard is the real world itself, but modern technologies can offer compelling simulations. Think virtual reality, augmented reality and video games.”

After completing her PhD in Psychology at Harvard University, Culham started her journey at Western as a postdoctoral fellow in Mel Goodale’s lab in 1997. That’s when she started studying hand actions and came to realize the importance of realness on brain processes. Over the last 20 years, her research has shown that the brain reacts differently when doing a real action versus an imagined action, and also when looking at a real object compared to a photo of that same object.

“When you present people with real objects, the neurological response is different than if you see a picture of the same thing. This is in part because you can interact with a real object but not a picture. For example, you would never try to pound a nail with a picture of a hammer,” Culham said. “These differences were surprising given the assumptions within the field at the time.”

Culham described it as a continuum. On one end, you have standard experiments, and on the other, you have reality. Virtual reality is in between. “We are now also exploring whether virtual reality can be better than standard experiments because it offers both realism and experimental control.”

Rather than studying cognitive functions one at a time using separate paradigms, Culham wanted to investigate research participants playing a video game that uses all of these functions. She recently went in a brain scanner to play Pac-Man as a pilot participant and described the experience as the most engaging neuroscience experiment she’s ever been in. “I kept asking to play another round!”

“We ultimately want to understand dynamic behaviour and brain function in the real world so we can develop better theories and more successful applications that benefit cognition in everyday life. Our approach studies the ‘freely behaving brain’ under realistic scenarios through video games. With the development of new portable techniques to measure human brain function, these new approaches can also be applied in the real world itself.”

In conventional neuroscience, researchers study specific aspects of cognition like perception, memory and action using paradigms designed to isolate theoretical components under well-controlled conditions. In contrast, Culham’s lab has participants play a video game to study how such functions work together. Analyses will be data-driven and will allow not just the testing of existing hypotheses, but the generation of new ones as well.

Culham is also excited to leverage the CRC recognition to highlight the new field of immersive neuroscience. She hopes this approach will foster the effective development of neuroscientific applications for everyday life.

“This work will enhance the theoretical and experimental sophistication of neuroscience research and its applications. With expansion and more availability of technology, this will open doors to the possibilities that weren’t there in the past.”