Jason Kelly | February 4, 2017
Halfway through a meeting with Laura Carlson, I’m lost.
This is only a test. Via a virtual-reality headset and controller connected to a computer in the Notre Dame psychology professor’s lab, I’m navigating a smoke-filled shopping mall, trying to find the only safe exit before fire consumes the building — and me with it.
The old-school video game feel of the graphics doesn’t diminish the tense authenticity of the experience. Even though I’m in no actual danger, I have knotted shoulders, a quickened pulse and clammy palms worthy of a real emergency.
If I ever did find myself in a burning mall, this exercise makes clear how much trouble I’d have finding my way out. For Carlson, the data she collects from volunteer rats-in-a-maze like me reveals the different strategies we use to navigate under duress.
Carlson and her researchers evaluate your general sense of direction with a questionnaire and tests involving the orientation of objects and the configuration of shapes. Then you wander through the mall in a relaxed scenario, accomplishing tasks on a to-do list before meeting a friend.
While you get acquainted with the building, the researchers measure your baseline anxiety levels under those relatively calm circumstances. You have errands to run and an appointment to keep. You’re not rushed, but you don’t have time to waste either. There’s a low-grade, everyday busyness to the situation, providing routine stress readings to compare to your reactions in the crisis to come.
Find this store, you’re instructed, then proceed to another location. Signs in the corridors provide direction — and I crane my neck so far to look at them in the virtual-reality environment that, in photos snapped during my test, my head is turned 180 degrees away from the computer screen. I’m in the mall.