Virtual Reality Enhances Ability to Recall Information

While virtual reality (VR) has been gaining ground in recent years due to gaming, researchers have also been exploring its potential in a diverse range of other fields, such as medicine, education, and job training.

A group of researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD) had recently conducted one of the first studies on whether people retain information better through VR, as compared to desktop computers and hand-held devices.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said Amitabh Varshney, co-author on the study published in the appropriately titled journal Virtual Reality.

In the study, volunteers were asked to navigate a “memory palace” which allows people to enhance their memories by placing objects or items in virtual environments, such as individual buildings or whole towns.

“Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” explained lead author Erik Krokos, a doctoral student in computer science. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”

First, the participants (none of whom were familiar with VR) were divided into two groups — one viewed information first via a VR head-mounted display and then on a desktop, while the others did the opposite.

Learning through VR could be superior than learning via a computer monitor. Image credit:, CC0 Public Domain.

Then the subjects navigated virtual environments populated with familiar faces, which they were first allowed to familiarised themselves with on paper.

After a while, the “memory palaces” went blank and, following a two-minute break, the volunteers had to indicate where each of the faces was located in the environment.

According to the researchers, the key here was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and relation to other faces, structures, and even one’s own body.

Results showed an 8.8 percent improvement in recall accuracy in the group using the VR headsets, which is a statistically significant result.

Given recent findings in cognitive psychology, indicating that the mind is inherently embodied and therefore develops memories in relation to its environment, there is a possibility that “a spatial virtual memory palace — experienced in an immersive virtual environment — could enhance learning and recall be leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” stated co-author Catherine Plaisant.



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