Why Extended Reality (xR) is Poised to Disrupt Corporate Learning and Development – Part II: The Brain Science

Note: If you missed Part I of this blog series, catch up and read Part I: The Problem. This is part of a four-blog series exploring the psychology and brain science behind the potential for extended reality tools to disrupt corporate Learning & Development.

Four Dissociable Learning Systems in the Brain

The human brain is comprised of at least four distinct learning systems. A schematic of the learning systems is provided in the figure below.

 

The cognitive skills learning system in the brain has evolved to obtain knowledge and facts. Cognitive skill learning tends to involve processing text and is limited by the learner’s working memory span and attention span. It requires focus and mental repetition for long-term memory storage. The cognitive skills learning system encompasses the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and associated medial temporal lobe structures in the brain. The ultimate goal of this system is to transfer knowledge from short term memory in the prefrontal cortex to long term memory in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes. Processing in this system is adversely affected by stress, pressure, and anxiety. This system is slow to develop, not reaching maturity until individuals are in their 20’s, and begins to decline in middle age. This is another reason why xR tools that broadly engage more than just the cognitive system are so effective.

The behavioral skills learning system in the brain has evolved to learn behaviors. It is one thing to know what to do, but it is completely different (and mediated by a different brain region) to know how to do it. Behavioral skills are learned by doing. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Real-time video role play or xR with real-time feedback are ideal for behavioral skills training. Behaviors that are rewarded will be more likely to occur in the future, and behaviors that are punished will be less likely to occur in the future. Interestingly, this system does not rely on working memory and attention. In fact, there is strong scientific evidence that “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behavioral skill learning is mediated by the basal ganglia and gradual, incremental dopamine-mediated changes in behavior. The ultimate goal of this system is to use incremental, dopamine-mediated learning in the basal ganglia to train direct neural connections between sensory regions and motor regions in the brain that drive behavior.

The emotional learning system in the brain has evolved to facilitate the development of emotional and social context and a nuanced understanding of oneself, others, and emotionally charged situations that involve conflict, stress, pressure and anxiety. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less well understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but socio-emotional processing strongly affects both cognitive and behavioral skills learning, facilitates situational awareness, and builds upon experiential learning systems described next. The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures.

As Einstein so eloquently stated, experience is at the heart of all learning. It is also the key ingredient in xR training. The experiential learning system has evolved to represent the sensory aspects of an experience, whether visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory. This is distinct from the socio-emotional aspects but when combined with emotional processing a rich contextual representation emerges. Every experience is unique and has some emotional valence to it. In that sense, the emotional and experiential systems go hand in hand, and both add rich context to cognitive and behavioral skills learning. The critical brain regions associated with experiential learning differ as a function of the sensory input. Visual representations are formed in the occipital lobes and auditory representations are formed in the temporal lobes. Tactile representations are formed in the parietal lobes and olfactory information is represented in the piriform cortex and olfactory bulb.

In Part 3, we cover the hard skills associated with extended reality.

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