VR Learning and its Effects on the Brain

March 11, 2020

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein’s insight is supported by the neuroscience of learning. I want to give a very brief overview as to why experience is so fundamental to learning, and why information based traditional learning is so much less effective. Before we dive into the neuroscience, let’s address this with a short anecdote.

If you’ve ever travelled to a conference, seminar or a training session, you can easily remember the hotel you stayed in – how you got there from the airport, the people you met, and the places you visited in the vicinity of the hotel – even if it was a couple of years ago. You could easily give me directions to a bar or café you discovered. What you would struggle with is telling me the information content of the training; it would be difficult to provide as much detail about the training as you could about your experiences.

TL;DR:  If you’re not all that interested in the Neuroscience, you can stop reading here. Your ability to remember experiences compared to information is probably enough to convince you that experiential and immersive VR learning is more effective and a better ROI for your Learning & Development budget than traditional information based learning.

For those who are interested in how VR learning activates the brain to create memorable behavioural change and memory that is slow to decay, let’s have a look at the Neuroscience.

Illustration of the five main human brain lobes

The human brain has (at least) four distinct learning systems. Experience is at the heart of how we learn – the three lobes that make up ‘the Experiential System’ are: Parietal (language/touch), Occipital (vision), and Temporal (sound/feeling) lobes. These are the centres for;

  • Experiential learning
  • Immersive learning
  • Context rich experiences
  • Sensory/perceptual experiences
  • Inputs to the brain

The experiential system is what VR and AR directly access. In the experiential system there is no limitation on resources, which goes a long way to explain why learning this way feels effortless.

What Does Immersive Learning do to the Brain?

1. The Information System

The Frontal Lobe makes up the Information System where knowledge and facts are processed and stored. This is the Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus.

Information that comes in the form of text, graphics, or video is processed here using limited resources – working memory and attention. Memory and attention are limited resources that form a cognitive bottleneck mostly because more information is always coming in and available to the learner than can be processed. Some of this information is irrelevant to learning, such as distractions from the environment, or non-essential information sources such as mobile phone alerts.

Suffice to say, when you are in an immersive learning environment such as a VR headset, there are no distractions – you can’t check your smartphone!

2. The Behavioural System

Now we have to talk about punishment and reward, and how scenario based VR training works. The Behavioural System resides deep within the brain and is controlled by positive and negative feedback in real time. This system is like a switch for learning, turning on and off depending on the feedback. You can have positive feedback for negative behaviours. This is why a music teacher would recommend you ‘don’t learn mistakes’ – which then have to be unlearned.

Behaviours that are rewarded by dopamine release are more likely to be elicited again in the same context – and the reverse is true when there is no dopamine reward.  This is how ‘feed addiction’ in social media works – how people get addicted to checking their feed for upvotes, likes and comments.

When teaching new behaviours, real-time feedback is critical to ensure that the learning ‘switch’ is on. Delaying the feedback by a second or two means that the learning is weak and incorrect behaviour is not unlearned and replaced with the correct behaviour.  Immersive scenario-based training creates this real-time reward feedback loop.

You’ve probably heard ‘It is one thing to know what to do, but it is completely different to know how to do it’.  The behavioural system in the brain links the knowing to the doing, and using immersive VR training is the proven way to make this linkage stick.

3. The Emotional System

For the purposes of VR learning, we are talking about Situational Awareness when we talk about the emotional system. Situational Awareness is the ability to ‘read’ a situation and to know what to do next.  This includes reading others behaviours and having empathy for the other people in that situation.

Having the information is not enough; knowing how to apply the information in a way that is appropriate to the situation is what we are training here. People who have been through empathy training are able to adapt quickly to new situations and apply the information they have to appropriate behaviours.

Immersive training through VR can drive behavioural change for inclusion and diversity, workplace bullying, and sexual harassment.

VR Learning Produce Measurable Insights

VR learning engages all these neural systems – experiential, behavioural, cognitive and emotional in a rich, interconnected way that is contextual.  The learning memory is very slow to decay and can be repeated, tested and assessed in the immersive courseware. Valuable and actionable insights are immediately available for each student via action data collected during the training and afterwards in traditional style Q&A testing.

We create immersive scenario based training courses that ensures employees are job-ready, with reduced need for on-the-job experience training or one-on-one mentorship. They have higher EQ and situational awareness, being able to apply their information knowledge through appropriate behaviours, and apply better decisioning without having to experience thousands of hours of repetition.

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