Virtual Reality And The Power of 3-D Recall

When I met my boyfriend five years ago, he was deeply interested in the memorization techniques of Memory Champions, such as Ed Cooke. He was particularly drawn the the practice of creating a “memory palace,” in which you take a mental journey through a familiar location and place remarkable icons along the path to trigger your memory. Shortly after reading Moonwalking With Einstein and applying such memory techniques throughout his life, he had a great idea that he’s been revisiting all this time.

What if we could use virtual reality (VR) to create immersive memory palaces?

We both concluded that the visceral experience created within a VR learning palace would likely be more poignant, and thus easier to recall, than what the average mind can conjure up. We’ve been adding notes on our massive glass dry erase board for years, hoping that one day we would have the capital or influence to bring the idea to fruition.

The other day, I sent my boyfriend a text: “I have good news and bad news. Your VR memory palace idea works, but University of Maryland beat you to it.”

A new study suggests that using VR supports learning and memory more than using a tablet or computer. While VR has promising applications across many fields, researchers have recently been focused on developing VR for educational purpose. In their recent study, the University of Maryland study sought to answer the question: would virtual reality help or hinder a person’s memory?

To answer this question, researchers created a “memory palace,” in which people had to recall an object or item by replacing it in two virtual locations. This behavior activated a type of memory called spatial mnemonic encoding, which converts new information into mental pictures and then encodes the products of this visuo-spatial sketchpad into permanent long-term storage. In simpler terms, the memory palace pairs an obscure idea with a memorable image to add depth and complexity. Rule of thumb when creating a memory palace: the more bizarre, the better.

I’ll give you an example from organic chemistry. If I needed to recall the chemical reaction for the oxidative cleavage of diols, I might represent this reaction with a mental image of a well-endowed woman showing off some cleavage. Since the reaction involves breaking C-C bonds, I would visualize both a man and woman smiling (the C-shape) and the woman removing her top (representing the split). Next the reaction forms C-O bonds, so my mental video would involve the woman smiling cheekily (the C-shape) and the man opening his mouth in shock upon seeing the women’s breasts (the O-shape). O-Chem just got a whole lot more interesting!

In the University of Maryland study, 40 volunteers were asked to memorize famous faces in a virtual environment and then replace the faces after a short break. The volunteers were split into two groups. One group went went through the memory exercise on a head-mounted VR display first, followed by a traditional computer interface. The second group first did the exercise on the computer, and then a VR display.

The groups then went into the two environments used as the memory place: an ornate palace and a medieval town. Within the virtual environments, the famous faces were placed around the area, and participants had to memorize the faces’ locations. The screens then went blank, and users had a two-minute break. After the break, the participants attempted to place the faces in their correct locations.

The immersive nature of the VR environment allowed participants to shift all of their focus onto recalling memories, rather than navigating the area or blocking out distractions. Cathering Plaisant, a senior research scientist in the University of Maryland suggests that, “This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory place — experienced in an immersive virtual environment — could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration.”

Of the 40 participants, 40% scored 10% higher in recall when using the VR headsets, over their computer performance. Though this study was admittedly small, the initial results look promising. According to Amitabh Varshney, professor at University of Maryland, “By showing that virtual reality can help improve recall, it opens the door to further studies that look at the impact of VR-based training modules at all levels — from elementary school children learning astronomy to trauma residents acquiring the latest knowledge in lifesaving procedures. We believe the future of education and innovation will benefit greatly from the use of these new visual technologies.”

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