Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

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…