Research suggests VR experiences may not be useful in some educational contexts. ArturVerkhovetskiy/Depositphotos

As modern virtual reality technologies swiftly move into educational environments there has been surprisingly little research into how these tools affect learning outcomes. A new Japanese study is suggesting virtual reality may inhibit effective formation of visual memories, and in some contexts could result in poor educational results.

The experiment consisted of 40 subjects, split evenly between active and passive viewing conditions. Each subject watched a video set in a museum where they were presented with 10 paintings from Peter Paul Rubens, and 10 paintings from Nicolas Poussin, two well-known baroque artists. Immediately after viewing the film, and two weeks later, all subjects completed a series of memory tests.

Interestingly, while the memory test results from both active and passive groups were similar immediately following the viewing, two weeks later the results in the active group had diminished while the passive group’s memories remained strong. The implication of the study is active VR viewing somewhat degrades a person’s ability to form strong visual memories.

Exactly what could be underpinning these findings is unclear, however, the researchers offer a number of hypotheses to explain the results. The most simple explanation is that the subjects in the active viewing group just spent less time looking at the actual paintings due to their ability to choose to look at other points in the room. The study did not measure how much time the active viewing subjects spent looking at the paintings.

Another hypothesis is that the enhanced immersion in active VR presents the brain with a greater cognitive load, ultimately inhibiting effective visual memory formation. A recent EEG study investigating cognitive processing during learning is pointed to as suggesting immersive VR experiences could potentially inhibit learning due to the cognitive load of the experience.

“One might think that the cognitive resources of the participants in the active viewing condition could have been assigned to sensory reception rather than to attention to the content,” the researchers hypothesize in the study. “Sensory reception requires cognitive resources. Their cognitive resources may have been involved in sensory reception rather than encoding the content of the movie; therefore, memory performance in the active viewing condition was lower than that in the passive viewing condition.”

“To use HMDs more effectively, based on the results of the current study, specific content and instructions for VR should be offered to help students memorize more correctly and effectively,” the researchers conclude. “For example, when a specific object is to be memorized, the view in the HMD should not be changed regardless of the student’s movement.”

The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Source: Virtual reality may prevent effective formation of visual memories

Random sensory quotes

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.

— Diane Ackerman