Why VR is a Learning Machine: Wellness and Resilience

Posted by Todd Maddox & Tim Fitzpatrick on May 10, 2020 1:04:57 PM

Meet Joanna.

Joanna is a 35-year old mother of two. Her oldest, Aiden is in middle school, and her youngest, Henry is in elementary school. Joanna is a Marketing Director at a medium sized business in the Midwest.

Like all Americans (and many across the globe), Joanna’s life changed drastically in the early months of 2020 with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. She went from recovering from the winter holidays and planning a family trip during Spring Break, to sheltering in place with her spouse and children.

Joanna realizes that she has it better than many. She has a roof over her head, a good job, schools who have been proactive in developing virtual classroom activities, and a spouse who is supportive and loves to cook and clean.

At the same time, her company had to lay off a number of employees so she and her fellow employees are taking on additional, new responsibilities, with steep learning curves. Her kids are struggling to cope with the physical and social isolation, and Joanna is having a hard time developing a routine so that she can get her work done while meeting her family needs. She also worries about her elderly parents in Queens, and her sister in Boston. Simply put, she struggles to get through the day, she feels the chronic stress and anxiety growing, and she worries about the uncertain future.

Joanna longs for an outlet to address her bouts of anxiety and stress, and to help her build the coping strategies that she knows she will need going forward. She has done yoga for years, and has stepped up the frequency, even including her kids on occasion. She has introduced meditation and mindfulness into her daily routine as well and finds it useful. Even so, the time commitment to these two activities is challenging given her heavy “remote” workload, and her responsibilities to her family. She also finds it very difficult to “clear her mind” of her daily life so that she gets the most value from these two activities. Sometimes she can, and sometimes she can’t, but even when she succeeds it takes precious additional time to “get in the zone” that she simply does not have.

She longs for something that can quickly and effectively capture her attention without effort, and can provide an immediate and effective “escape” from her everyday life. She wants something that can immediately calm her anxiety and reduce her stress without having to think about it, and that can build the coping mechanisms that she needs and can use in a pinch.

Simply put, she wants a tool or technology that helps her mind and body quickly reduce anxiety and stress, while simultaneously building the mental and behavioral coping skills that she needs long term.

As outlined in our recent report, Joanna needs a learning technology that broadly engages experiential, emotional, behavioral and cognitive learning centers in her brain in synchrony, and in the interest of reducing stress and anxiety all while building long-term coping mechanisms.

Yoga, meditation and mindfulness engage these systems in the brain, but the cognitive effort needed to get in the appropriate mindset is high. The load on the cognitive learning system is too great and failure to achieve the desired result is frequent. What she needs is a technology that captures attention with no effort.

To achieve this lofty goal the learning machine must be immersive and must quickly capture her attention while transporting her into a novel, virtual world where stress and anxiety dissipate quickly. It must do this consistently and must be available on demand when and where she needs it.

Virtual reality (VR) learning tools focused on wellness and resilience meet this challenge. Unlike yoga and traditional meditation and mindfulness approaches that offer value, but take time to master, VR quickly captures Joanna’s attention without effort. Immersive content that allows Joanna to escape to a tropical beach, to float in outer space, or to explore the wilderness will immediately capture her attention and direct it away from day to day life. It will stimulate sensory, perceptual and emotion centers in her brain, all in the interest of stress and anxiety reduction.

(Use directional pad or click-and-drag to explore the environment)

Video credit: Steven Poe

Content can be constructed that teaches Joanna stress reducing breathing exercises that are guided by changes in the visual scene, or interactively by her pattern of breathing. Over time, her body can learn these coping skills that she can use outside of the VR headset and in her daily life.

If time is at a premium but a bout of anxiety emerges, a 5 to 10-minute VR experience is all that Joanna will need to reduce the stress. If more time is available, several VR experiences can be undertaken across the day.

VR is consistent, efficient and available on demand. It can help Joanna deal with her stress and anxiety and help her get through the day. It can help build the coping mechanisms that she will need if she does not have her VR headset (e.g., deep breathing techniques). VR broadly and effectively engages Joanna’s brain and helps her learn the skills that she needs—one experience at a time.


Topics: Learning, Anxiety, Stress, Virtual reality, Wellness, Resilience

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At the end of the day, your healthcare journey begins and ends with you. Using virtual reality to improve education and training in healthcare has limitless potential to impact the lives of everyone you meet along the way.

Remember, evidence shows VR:

  • Improves satisfaction
  • Decreases anxiety
  • Improves learning
  • Improves retention
  • Increases actionable empathy
  • Outperforms classroom-based learning
  • Is the medium preferred by learners

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