Why Virtual Reality is a Learning Machine in Healthcare
This is the first in a series of reports focused on the use of virtual reality to enhance learning in healthcare. This report rigorously defines the term “learning” and shows that learning is broadly applicable in healthcare, going well beyond just education and training. The neurobiology of learning is briefly reviewed and a number of use cases are suggested. Each subsequent report in this series focuses on a specific use case and details why VR is so effective relative to alternative solutions.
Learning is defined as “a process that leads to changes in brain structure and function through experience”. There are two key aspects of this definition. First is the fact that learning requires experience. A famous quote from Albert Einstein embodies this fact.
“Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.”
Simply put we learn best through experience.
Second, learning involves changes in brain structure and function. This follows directly from research on the neurobiology of learning. Critically, this research shows that there are at least four distinct learning systems in the brain. Each is “tuned” to a particular type of learning. These are the cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and experiential learning systems. The most effective learning occurs when the experiential system is highly engaged and in synchrony with engagement of the other learning systems. Each of these systems has different operating characteristics, and thus the “experiences” that most effectively engage each system are different.
Interestingly, if you ask the average person to define learning in healthcare, they almost always talk about education and training applications. For example, they might describe education around acquiring knowledge about medication, disease states, or HIPAA compliance usually through reading and mental repetition. Similarly, they might talk about training in which you acquire some behavioral skill like care and maintenance of a dialysis machine or insulin pump usually through practice and physical repetitions.
Clearly learning is much broader affecting all aspects of the human condition associated with changes in brain structure and function through experience. Thus, learning is relevant to mental health, wellness, resilience, performance enhancement, empathy, rehabilitation, pain management, and much more.
So much of what we do leads to learning!
Given the importance of learning to the human condition, one might ask what tools will be most effective for learning. As suggested by Einstein tools must be experiential to be effective for learning. As suggested by the neuroscience of learning, the best learning tools broadly engage multiple learning systems in synchrony thus spreading the wealth of the learning while minimizing the cognitive load on the learner’s brain.
Virtual reality (VR) meets these challenges and more. VR is grounded in experiential learning. Users have a sense of immersion and presence in VR that broadly engages experiential learning centers in the brain and captures attention. VR content can be developed that engages emotional, behavioral and cognitive learning centers in synchrony. Most importantly, VR is consistent, scalable, and available on-demand. Consistency means providing the best experience for every user, every time. Scalability means providing these learning experiences without capacity constraints. On demand availability means providing these learning experiences when and where users need it most. This is what is needed to provide the mental and physical repetitions needed for effective learning.
VR is a learning machine that can be broadly applied in many healthcare domains. It can enhance learning in patients, providers, and in the patient-provider interaction – one experience at a time.