Scroll Top

Cognitive Neuroscience and Virtual Reality: How Immersive Training Underscores the Science of Learning

Imagine a picturesque cul-de-sac, complete with manicured lawns and friendly neighbors. The view is so nice, you almost forget you’ve got a job to do. People need internet and cable! As you wire a customer’s enclosure, you follow standard safety procedures for home installation until… BUZZ. Ah! You fumbled and got the shock of your lifetime. As you jump, your brain does something incredible. It forms a new memory – and a useful one at that. Maybe getting shocked had a silver lining after all. Plot twist! You experienced a haptic shock instead of a real-life electrical current. This is just one example of how VR safety training programs activate the brain through sensory-rich experiential learning. That shock was simulated by a buzzing electric sound and vibrating VR controllers.

Science and innovation go hand in hand. That may be one of the reasons Virtual Reality (VR) has emerged as the future of corporate training.

As we step toward the future of learning, Learning & Development (L&D) professionals are eager to understand how immersive learning is tied to cognitive neuroscience. Science is a dependable tool to help us better understand our motivations, correct our behaviors, and improve our learning outcomes.

VR training programs activate the brain through visual, audible, and physical stimulation. From whichever angle we look at it, virtual reality has a direct impact on the brain.

Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity

The brain is extraordinary. Its complexity exceeds any other known structure in the universe. The brain is also what makes people, people.

The study of neuroscience involves taking a closer look at the function of the brain and the nervous system. It covers why, when you burn your finger on a hot stovetop, your brain remembers the pain on your fingertip. This is why sensory, experiential learning is so effective when it comes to retaining new information. Will you touch the hot stove again? Thanks to your brain, probably not!

The process of learning depends on the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways, otherwise known as neuroplasticity.

Positive Psychology explains,

The relation between neuroplasticity and learning is an easy one to surmise – when we learn, we form new pathways in the brain. Each new lesson has the potential to connect new neurons and change our brain’s default mode of operation. 

Our brains are shaped by our environment and our experiences. Although VR simulates an artificial environment, immersive learning still impacts the brain on a neural level. Virtual reality makes a lasting impression on the brain, which is what makes it such an effective modality for training.

The ability of the brain to elaborate new connections and neuronal circuits—neuroplasticity—underlies all learning.

– Psychology Today

Cognitive neuroscience helps learning companies like us better understand how the brain retains new information when it interacts with different forms of stimuli. The same practice of introducing stimuli to improve mental health can be used to enhance learning scenarios. Whether it’s fresh air or a simulated oasis in VR, the brain’s plasticity responds to enriched environments. With this in mind, we can apply the science of learning to design and deliver impactful learning programs!

The Science of Learning

The science of learning is informed by many disciplines, including cognitive science and psychology. The aim? To optimize learning.

Harvard University says cognitive science shows instructors how the science of learning can help us understand the best ways to engage learners and ensure they retain the most information possible. 

As aforementioned, neuroplasticity is the ability of the nervous system to respond to extrinsic or intrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its function, structure, or connections. Neuroplasticity is central to the trend of upskilling in corporate training. In other words – whoever said you couldn’t teach an old dog a new trick didn’t try VR.

Repetition, sensory stimuli, and experiential learning are strong methods to impact learning retention. In VR, learners interact with life-like 3D images and physically perform tasks as many times as they need to.

Ready for a real-life example?

Order-filling is a demanding process that requires employees to be efficient both with time and strategy. We created a VR training program for a Fortune 500 company to optimize its decanting process.

In this application, learners were immersed in a virtual warehouse environment and tasked with decanting products in a timed simulation. Challenged to sharpen their critical thinking skills, users were able to physically pivot within the VR space as they filled a tote.

Tote too full? Have products been mixed that pose a hazard risk? Learners were notified as many times as needed to correct their errors with physical action, each alert redirecting them on how to navigate the 3D dimensional space. Post-training, employees are equipped to transfer their practice to a real-life warehouse with a clear idea of what their role entails, both physically and mentally.

The success rate at which employees decant products from inventory into a tote has proven to have a butterfly effect. With greater efficiency, fewer shipments are saving this organization tremendously. One less tote may mean one less truck, and it all starts with better practices on the work floor.

The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University explains that one principle of learning is becoming a self-directed learner.

Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning. When students develop the skills to engage these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their performance but also their effectiveness as learners.

The importance of training is clear. Better habits lead to better performance outcomes.

Neuroscience and VR Training

There’s no denying that VR training activates cognition. But how does neuroscience inform the way we deliver training? Given what we know about cognition, we create training programs that are learner-centric.

Ever heard the phrase, we learn more from our failures than our successes?  What we get wrong in training may be the key to developing proficiency in any role or industry. By delivering programs that cater to the brain’s preferences, we optimize learning outcomes.

Training Industry writes,

Presenting positive feedback for correct answers reinforces memory. Presenting feedback about incorrect answers triggers the phenomenon known as prediction error. Current neuroscience suggests that we can only update our concepts and memories if our predictions are incongruent with the feedback we receive.

VR training corrects learners in real-time as they act out the skills they need, so they benefit from the cognitive impact of on-the-job training without any real risks.

Corporate training yields more than just performance results. Safety training is especially effective when deployed through immersive learning. When the brain becomes familiar with dangerous situations, employees are better equipped to manage real-life scenarios. In some cases, VR is able to minimize dangerous errors by allowing new employees to learn important aspects of the job in a low-risk digital environment.

The safety of your employees should always be a top priority. If it’s daily risks or extreme scenarios, here are two trainings we used to help learners mitigate risk:  

Let’s start with something we are all familiar with. Take driving, for example. Our team designed a virtual reality pilot for a major chain retailer to address the learning needs of their driver population. We created a virtual reality city environment, including overhead obstructions and a branded box truck to simulate a real-life experience. In this program, drivers learn to perform a standard pre-trip safety inspection, mitigate overhead obstructions, and practice safe merging and reversing procedures.

While the program can operate with three traditional surrounding screens, when we allowed users to try the headsets, an overwhelming majority preferred them. Why? Their brains said so. Those who preferred VR explained that it was easier to drive in VR because of the depth perception and spatial awareness it provided. How cool is that?!

Remember the home installation scenario we mentioned earlier? We teamed up with COX to create an active shooter simulation. When learners’ demo-ed the product, most reported experiencing an increase in heart rate. Given the true-to-life scenario, many panicked and failed. Lucky for them – users were able to try again, and again, without risk of harm. They’re now more prepared than ever to protect themselves in a life-threatening situation.

Anything that stimulates an emotional response is going to affect the way learners recall information. Physiologically, the brain influences the way the heart beats. Not only did the training elicit a visceral reaction from participants, but allowed them to practice thinking through the scenario and forming their best strategy for mitigating risk.

Neuroscience and VR: Takeaways

We’ve covered some big ideas, and the science doesn’t end here. Let’s review important takeaways.

In VR, learning is much more immediate, tied to experience, and surprisingly – less abstract. Immersive learning is a rehearsal for the brain, improving confidence, familiarity, and memory.

Whether it’s learning new industry jargon or remembering the correct steps to operate a forklift safely, the brain’s plasticity is what makes the impact of training programs possible. 

Ready for your pop quiz? What’s the role of cognitive neuroscience in all of this?

VR captures the essence of real-world training that enhances performance later on. How the brain perceives VR programming is sure to make a ripple effect in your company.

We’ve got one last question for you. Who are the brains of your operation?

From safety to efficiency, immersive learning activates the brain to form better habits in your workforce. VR training works, and we have the science to back it up. Want to know more about how to activate learning at your organization?  Subscribe to our Training and Development Channel and follow us on LinkedIn for more learning content.

Written By
Most Popular Posts
Download Our Free ebook