Virtual Reality Is Our Savior: A Vision Of The Future Of Education


In an earlier article, I talked about the fact that we learn much better when we learn with our entire body - all of our senses. I called this “embodied learning”. For most of our history, this was the dominant mode of knowledge acquisition. Today, learning is an imagination-filled sedentary activity mainly consisting of reading, writing, and passive review. But, historically, it was something that was done out of necessity for the purpose of survival in the field. Learning about the stars and constellations was done on cold windy nights in order to properly navigate back to a newly discovered watering hole, or as a way of traveling long distances without getting lost. “History" was a running set of stories about the past triumphs and foibles of one’s own kin  - a running guidebook of “dos” and “do nots” instead of a set of facts and events that had to be remembered for didactic purposes.

However, In the last couple hundred years, much of our education has lacked this traditional depth. The rise of verbal and book-based education has distanced us from the subjects at hand - reducing our understanding and our motivation to learn. But, with the rise of new virtual reality (VR) technologies, we now have a chance of bringing embodied learning back to everyday life.

Let’s look at an example: History students today are pushed to build a mental images from a series of tedious and droning descriptions (“It was a rectangular structure sitting 55 feet tall, with a sloping and angled roof that dipped down and leveled off 5 feet above the ground.“). As a glance around most classrooms will show you, this doesn’t seem to be working. Building mental imagery is a hard business and words are ill-suited for communicating complex scenes and structures. With VR technologies, you’ll be able to see and experience these objects by exploring and interacting with three dimensional representations of the subjects at hand. In addition, you’ll be able to hear the sounds of the environment and maybe even feel the stone and sand beneath your feet. A 55 foot tall structure sounds big, but it’s hard to get a real sense of the scope and scale that’s being constructed in the earlier passage. Now, however, you’ll be able to get a real sense of what the Egyptian priesthood experienced when they walked into the pyramids, or what it felt like to live in an early 19th century tenement in New York City.  

Every discipline, except for very conceptual mathematical and philosophical subjects, deals with tangible and visual subject matter. And, since about 2/3 of the brain is involved in visual processing, it seems desirable to make each subject as visual and concrete as possible -- since we have such a genius for visual cognition.  

Learning outside of the traditional academic disciplines can also be bolstered by VR. With the rise of affordable and small recording technologies, more of our everyday mundane and private activities will be captured. The break-ups, the arguments, the proposals, the board meetings. All of these things will be recorded at extremely high definition. These experiences can then be re-lived through a device like an Oculus. This will make it possible for us to “practice” key life and business circumstances. Have your first board meeting in a week? Experience five or ten through an Oculus. Scared of breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Live through a few with a VR unit. When you look at use cases like this, it’s also easy to see that psychological therapies, such as psychoanalysis and CBT, will also be impacted by VR.

VR can also be a great boon to the average level of wisdom present across the globe. Life is the process of gaining perspective through experience. This eventually brings calmness and wisdom. And, now, by giving young people access to a range of life experiences through the power of VR, it’s possible that we’ll be able to give the youngest in our society a bit of perspective and grounded wisdom starting at a very early age. Just imagine a future where it will be easy for young people to experience and understand, in a manner more visceral than is possible with book or video, the trials and travails of life. While VR will likely be dominated by games and X-rated activities in the early days, if we work hard to make these more noble use cases attractive and possible, they have a real chance of changing things for the better. So, after thousands of years, we come full circle - to the point where we can experience “real” life again, and gain embodied knowledge in the process.

Image: Wikipedia

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
Technology & Innovation

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…