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The Science of Virtual Reality: How VR Helps with Memory Retention

Much of the current interest in virtual reality (VR) centres around how it might be a new format to better engage the brain in learning, and how this new medium impacts memory retention, and to better engage the interest of those viewing VR.

While this immersive technology certainly excels in those objectives and has the potential to significantly disrupt training and education, When it comes to making bold statements with how VR directly affects how our brain accepts and retains information, we need to go back and look into the science of how exactly virtual applications are able to do just that. 

So in today’s post, we’ll be taking a deep dive into how exactly VR helps with memory retention and the certain areas this technology seamlessly targets by looking at two studies published in 2018. 

Intro to Attention & Memory

Before we start unpacking VR and memory retention, let’s briefly take a crash course in how our brain understands, processes, and recalls information. 

Encoding refers to the brain’s natural process for converting information into a construct that will be stored in either short or long-term memory. Boundless Psychology says this is like, “hitting “Save” on a computer file”. Your brain constantly is filtering, processing, and organizing information into these categories in order to store what’s important in order to avoid overwhelming you with remembering every single piece of information. 

You have probably experienced this in school especially when cramming for tests and exams, trying to read and remember the content you need to know to pass a course. However, the key to remembering and recalling information is transitioning what you’ve learned from short term memory into long term. In order to do that, neural connections need to be strengthened through repetition and reinforced by targeting our senses like sight and sound. 

  • Improves Recall Significantly

In a study conducted by Eric Krokos, Catherine Plaisant, and Amitabh Varshney, researchers from the University of Maryland, their main objective was to explore whether participants learn better in a virtual environment versus traditional platforms like desktop computers or tablets. Specifically, their main focus was whether VR affects a person’s recall ability. Researchers immersed participants in a “memory palace”, where people recall an object or item by placing it in an imaginary physical location. With presenting information in this format, researchers made use of spatial mnemonic encoding, which in layman’s terms refers to the brain’s ability to spatially organize thoughts and memories. 

What researchers found was that participants scored at least 10% higher in recall ability with a VR application. While this number may seem small, researchers share that this finding was statistically significant, and not attributed to chance. Being able to visualize and see in an immersive space was the key to this improvement in recall results. That’s because, with VR, the experience gives participants a true feel in stepping into a space and allows them to create their own lived experiences digitally. It is the act of leveraging a person’s natural ability to sense body position, movement, and acceleration that can enhance learning and recall. 

  •  Leads to Better Focus

In the same study, participants described how immersion played an important role in helping them stay focused on the task. Since researchers were using a Head-Mounted Display (HMD) headset to compare to learning via a desktop, participants were able to use and experience hardware that provided the most immersive effect. Like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, HMD’s fit similarly to goggles, featuring a rim that is purposely there to block out light and other extraneous stimuli we would pick up in our peripheral vision. 

This sets up the perfect environment for users to direct their full attention to the VR experience, which is exactly what participants of this study found. It was this zoning in effect that helped participants experience the “superior sense of the spatial awareness which they claimed was important to their success”. Not only did full immersion help participants’ overall focus and help them perform better, but researchers also found that all but two of the 40 participants actually preferred using the HMD for the task compared to a regular desktop. 

  • More Enjoyment with Spatial Presence

Regarding spatial awareness, the study by Yeonhee Cho from Syracuse University looked specifically into the effects of having a digital presence in VR and how it impacts memory retention. One striking finding is the function of enjoyment in memory and recall. Similar to the Krokos, Plaisant, and Varshney study, Cho was comparing learning with desktop applications and immersive VR experiences in relation to learning a second language. Cho’s participants had a mixture of genders and backgrounds but shared one thing in common: having zero prior education or experience with the Korean language. 

The findings from this study partially focused on enjoyment while learning and highlighted how being entertained affects the whole learning process. Especially when navigating unfamiliar topics or environments, Cho notes that “enjoyment reduces stress or fear”, giving participants a new sense of motivation and something to look forward to. And since VR is still heavily associated with game-based applications and entertainment, the tendency to view the hardware in this way can actually be favourable. Cho found that game-based systems use enjoyment to build confidence and motivation in users without a negative response. 

The Science of Virtual Reality and Memory Retention

It’s safe to say that participants from both studies echoed an overwhelmingly positive response by using VR during learning applications. However, the question still stands: does VR help with memory retention? In short, yes, absolutely. By targeting how we learn and process information, capturing our focus all while making it fun and exciting, VR checks off so many of the boxes that will make experiences unforgettable. 

While these findings are particularly useful for curriculum writers and the education industry, there are also positive implications for adults in on-the-job training and in helping people learn and retain safety procedures or crisis responses. There are also implications for VR marketing, with a tool that captures client attention and makes your product or service stand out from the crowd. VR is a new medium without a lot of studies into its societal impact but its ability to leave impressions on memory and to help with retention have significant implications across industries and verticals.