In medical education, 3D graphics delivered on a 2D display are often used to teach 3-dimensional anatomy. This method is more efficient than textbooks 1 and standard 2D objects 2–4. Our navigable 3D brain model advances these technologies by fully immersing learners in a 3D virtual world of anatomical structures.
If someone has never experienced a 3D immersive environment, it is unfortunately impossible to “demonstrate” one using 2D delivery tools (e.g., text, images, or video). Nor is the experience of a “3D” movie analogous because it provides no user control and is not truly immersive. In contrast, VR goggles provide a wrap-around view where users can look in all directions including above, below, and behind them. With the addition of navigation, users can control what part of a 3D model they see and explore structures from different angles. It is an entirely different experience.
Assuming one has not actually put on the latest generation of VR goggles (highly recommended), the potential value of our 3D brain model, VR Brain Exploration, can best be explained by example.
Assume a person wants to buy or rent a house. Compare viewing a blueprint of a house and pictures vs. the authentic, immersive task of walking in the front door, moving through the area, and gaining an understanding of the layout, size, openness, and how it “feels” to live there.
Immersion involves a complex interaction between the psychological experience of feeling “present” within a learning model, representational fidelity, and learner interaction5,6. The immersive learning experience provides advantages over routine education, or even 3D models displayed on a 2D screen, including superior memory, transfer, and motivation7–10. Immersive learning in which learners control their experience by navigating the environment allows for a great connection to the materials being presented11.
Spatial memory is essential to survival and in the past helped our species understand things like caves, hunting grounds, and collections of people.12,13 In modern-day, when faced with something new, we quickly and efficiently create internal 3D models simply by looking around and walking through an environment.14–16 Continuing the analogy above:
One builds a sufficiently detailed and internalized 3D model of the house to guide the later decision of whether to sign a lease or take out a mortgage.
Graphical representations (in 3D models delivered on a 2D display) enhance understanding of complex spatial relations associated with neuroanatomy when compared to 2D representations.2,3,17,18 Construction of spatial memory and cognitive maps depend on consistent input from a variety of information for both goal-directed and exploratory purposes; virtual reality may enhance the effect further19(p459). Virtual environments do, indeed, confer spatial knowledge of the components of an environment and refine the understanding of how these components interact.20 Our immersive 3D experience does not require the spatial manipulation skills inherent in visualizing a 3D object on a 2D display2, and thus is likely to be even more effective than 2D-delivered 3D. We hypothesize that the “supernatural” ability to instantaneously transport or zoom in/out of different scales, which is possible in our model, may further enhance spatial learning 21(p279).
Internalized 3D models stored in spatial memory are strong, which is potentially explained by the uniqueness or novelty22 of the experience. The subsequent spatial map may cause understanding to persist longer than visualization based on images or textual descriptions. Continuing the analogy:
We can “revisit” the house in our minds and reconstruct the house experience. We do not need to go back to the house and walk through it again to remember. Disassembling (forgetting) a model is unlikely. If one returned to a childhood friend’s house, one is unlikely to get lost.
Augmenting Virtual Reality
Augmenting virtual reality with labels and guides further improves spatial memory acquisition.23,24 and ensures the learner does not become “lost” within the virtual brain. Use of highlights, color, and movement can guide the user’s interactions and signal biological activation and signaling.
With cognitive abilities engaged, learners utilize the layout and landmark orientation elements of the VR experience to develop a cognitive map that includes the overall layout, the objects, their meaning, and purpose.25,26 Such a map organizes, structures, and stores memories of associations and concepts in durable memories that are more easily retrieved.27,28 The internal map, with its relationships among elements in a space, also translates to a better understanding of relationships among concepts.29,30 Again, using the house analogy:
The memory of a house is enhanced if objects in the house have labels for objects [e.g., highlighting that a refrigerator is broken or the carpeting is new] or connections [e.g., this door goes to the garage]. Problem areas (such as a small bedroom) can be marked in red.
VR Brain Exploration similarly labels virtual neurological nodes and pathways by name and function and shows representations of neurotransmitters and their typical activity or role in a neurological circuit as well as variations that occur in disease, various physiological states, and addiction.
A 3D, interactive, and immersive approach to learning brain anatomy creates a durable internal 3D model of the brain, one that can be retrieved and utilized to conceptualize and organize a wide variety of brain-related educational concepts, such as neurology, pathology, and physiology.