Could virtual-reality make us smarter?

When the web initially took off, there were major concerns that it was “dumbing us down”. There are similar concerns with e-books making us dumber. I am quite sure that when we first started to use the written word, there were related concerns: “not having to remember all of your thoughts will rot your brain”.

I think that these concerns are unwarranted. It is possible that kids today have a harder time doing long division on paper than previous generations. But even if that is the case, it should not concern us. If it so happens that our kids grow up to live in a future where computers are less ubiquitous than today, then the zombie apocalypse will be upon us and you should be training for survival, not for long divisions.

My kids spend more time playing video games than on their homework. A lot more time. I could stop them short and train them in mathematics instead. They could then impress their teachers. But I expect that they are probably learning more useful skills through their gaming than I could impart through my lessons. Moreover, I suspect that video games are good for our brain. There is still little science on the subject. I would not waste my time playing “brain games”, for example. But you can do a lot worse for your brain than playing Mario Cart.

The next revolution in gaming (and computing) might be virtual reality. I have already pre-ordered a PlayStation VR bundle.

You just know that people will voice concerns about what virtual reality does to our kids. These fears have started already. People talk about how isolated people will become and so forth.

My hypothesis is that this virtual-reality games will be found to significantly enhance cognition. A recent study by Alloway and Alloway (2015) found that proprioception enhanced our working memory. Virtual-reality is all about proprioception so I bet that virtual-reality users will find their working memory is improving.

But that’s only the beginning.

When I was younger, I assumed that “training your brain” would involve doing mathematics. People who prefer to play sports would be, naturally, dumber. I’ll give you a hint as to what path I followed: my wife says I look like a little nerd.

I think that the evidence is now overwhelming that I was wrong. People who play sports end up with healthier brains. People who play sudoku all day long end up very good at it, but they don’t get smarter. I bet however that if you were to play the virtual-reality equivalent of sudoku, you would get smarter.

So here is a free start-up idea: virtual-reality “brain games”. Build video games designed to improve various cognitive abilities. Team up with college professors who can independently check whether there is any meat to your claims.

Speaking for myself, I hope to find time to help push this agenda forward…

6 thoughts on “Could virtual-reality make us smarter?”

  1. People who play sports end up with healthier parts of brain responsible for motor skills. This is a smaller, archaic part of the brain. Archaic brain parts are small but powerful with millions years of evolutions behind of them. Associative parts of the brains are younger, bigger, consume a lot of energy thus are difficult to feed. This is why it’s hard to think. Brain resists to consume too much energy, it takes any opportunity to procrastinate and so save the precious energy. Again millions years of evolution, during which species were most of the time hungry, are against consuming energy for no obvious gain. But it’s a good exercise for the circulatory system. People who exercise mental activity often outlive people who exercise physical activity.

    1. People who play sports end up with healthier parts of brain responsible for motor skills. This is a smaller, archaic part of the brain. Archaic brain parts are small but powerful with millions years of evolutions behind of them. Associative parts of the brains are younger, bigger, consume a lot of energy thus are difficult to feed.

      The human cerebral cortex holds only about 20% of all our neurons.

      1. I’ve seen your reference on facebook, to cite it:

        “Remarkably, the human cerebral cortex, which represents 82% of brain mass, holds only 19% of all neurons in the human brain”

        The fact that 19% of neurons are responsible for 82% of the brain mass tell a lot. There is a huge difference between neurons. Neurons are connected with each other through branches (axon and dendrites). So a neuron can have several thousand connections with other neurons (aka synapses). Absent these connections a neuron is just a body cell with its nucleus, organelle, cytoplasm, membrane. There is nothing special about it. Liver cells, for instance, have all the same. The network-like nature of the brain is what makes the difference. Memories (and perhaps thoughts) are not put into individual neurons. They are put into connections between them. Therefore just counting neurons without taking into account their interconnections and structure is taking a very narrow view of the subject. The volume, weight, blood supply (thus oxygen and glucose that is energy supply) of a given brain part are a much better proxy than the number of neurons it contains to estimate how hard it has to work.

  2. I will enable my kids to play with the Oculus and other VR headsets because I think it will help them become skilled in using these powerful tools to solve more complex problems faster.

    The startup idea I’m excited about is more around re-building old tools (e.g., spreadsheet software) to leverage speech and gesture recognize + VR to make sure faster at understanding, memorizing, and manipulating stuff in general (e.g., text, numbers, files, flow diagrams).

  3. I don’t know – I’ve been around long enough to be once-burned, twice-shy about VR. It goes in these “fad-cycles” – a bit like AI. I remember when VR was going to help us “fly” through mega-data analytics (I think I hear Bill Joy give a talk about that at BNR in ~ 1990) and help us better understand it. Wheat-fields of bar-graphs was the demo, as I remember it. I think you were right in the first place Daniel. Number theory, Graph theory, Probability theory… this will get you further, IMO.

    1. I don’t know – I’ve been around long enough to be once-burned, twice-shy about VR. It goes in these “fad-cycles” – a bit like AI.

      There is always a risk with any new technology that it will fail. There is still a risk that VR will be quickly forgotten once more. Maybe. But Sony is betting the farm on PlayStation VR right now and every report we got so far indicates that it does work well.

      I remember when VR was going to help us “fly” through mega-data analytics (I think I hear Bill Joy give a talk about that at BNR in ~ 1990) and help us better understand it.

      Instead we got smartphones. Sure. Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.

      My point is that you have to make bets, or you only get to stay home and die of old age.

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