October 1938 holds several records in the history books: Superman made his comic book debut, in Oregon the world’s oldest dated footwear was discovered, and a radio show demonstrated the potential of embodied cognition on a grand scale:
“We interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. … I’m speaking from the roof of the Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north, Hutchinson River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic.”
“Halloween Episode.” H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Columbia Broadcasting System. Sunday October 30, 1938. Radio.
What proceeds is by now a well-known radio event called The War of the Worlds. The Halloween edition was certainly crafted to elicit a bit more excitement than Wells’s other shows and and while it didn’t exactly create the wide-scale panic of urban legend, many across the nation did report feelings of terror as they felt they were under attack. Other viewers called local hospitals to see if they could donate blood while some called to either congratulate or berate CBS for broadcasting such an event on public radio. What is important in this experience is that our senses, in this case our ears, had driven people nationwide to action. The shared experience of this broadcast may have created the first ever experiment on embodied cognition.
Embodied Cognition: Then and Now
Embodied cognition is the theory that cognition is the interaction between the physical body and the mind. The idea of embodied cognition emerged from the field of philosophy in stark contrast to the extant thoughts put forth by Descartes. Descartes believed in the duality of the mind-body, proposing a dichotomy with the mind as a superior thinking tool and thus more reliable in deducing realities from life experiences that are encountered by the fallible body. Philosophers and psychologists argued against this position, suggesting that our bodily interactions inform our cognitive schema and are therefore not distinct but instead interdependent.
Simply stated, embodied cognition is the idea that our mind alone does not dictate our worldview but instead that our cognition is shaped by the relationship between our mind and our body to inform and navigate our world, make meaning from our environments, and ultimately to result in learning. Recall the last time you gave directions. You likely used your body to gesture about upcoming turns, indicate hallmarks along the route, and demonstrate the long straight path to take before the final turn towards your destination. Your knowledge was shared and even reinforced through the use your body’s actions.
Embodied cognition acknowledges that the mind and body are agents working together to make meaning of our experiences and many studies reinforce just how promising embodied cognition is for learning. Researchers from the University of Chicago (Cook, Mitchell, & Goldin-Meadow, 2008) found that simple gesturing in elementary students demonstrates knowledge not found in speech and can potentially change and improve their knowledge. When 3rd- and 4th-grade students explain how they solved math problems, the gestures they made to explain their processes demonstrates more knowledge of the concepts than their language implied. The ability of the child to embody their thought through gestures is yet another way in which embodied cognition allows learners to demonstrate and acquire knowledge.
In the classroom, teachers use embodied cognition whenever they invite students to interact with the environment whether through acting out historical events or conducting science experiments. These experiences not only help to secure knowledge for future but offer an engaging alternative to traditional instruction. Many tools exist to help teachers create experiences for their students including games and experiences that are both analog and digital, each harnessing the power of multi-sensory learning. But none of these tools seems as promising in delivering learning through embodied cognition as the new wave of technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) where learners worldwide are able to interact with content in ways never before available.
Illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”.
Embodied Cognition and Virtual Reality: The Technology to Transform Learning
The active use of mind and body implied in embodied cognition can be easily enacted through virtual reality. From gaming to education, VR experiences have increased exponentially during the past year. These experiences have allowed players to jump into a video game and interact with friends standing miles away while also transporting a classroom of students to the Great Wall of China on a Google Expedition virtual tour.
VR provides a playground to learn and explore and is a template for learning across a variety of domains with depth and interaction that work to ensure meaningful learning experiences and secure knowledge acquisition. For example, an ideal high school science classroom is filled with textbooks, beautiful illustrations and diagrams in a print rich environment for teaching about the systems of a human cell. But imagine if after reading about a cell, a student enters a virtual environment where they must push past the membrane gates and get their first glimpse of the prominently featured nucleus that is flanked by the endoplasmic reticulum sending proteins to the Golgi complex while the powerful mitochondria work tirelessly to create energy to fuel the cells.
What if after reading a passage, your English lit teacher asks you to put on your VR headset as you to take on the role of Beowulf going on his epic journey, defeating Grendel and ultimately crowned king of the Geats. When you see the epic poem played out in real time with a steady crescendo towards defeating the dragon, you are Beowulf. You are embodied in the experience and it becomes contextualized in a way that watching on the screen or reading in black and white simply cannot impress.
In which space are you more likely to fully grasp both the nuance and the gestalt of the cell’s work or the epic battle?
Current research by Disney shows that virtual reality technology is becoming so seamless, it can interact with and even replicate typical physical world behaviors like catching a ball. In a recent study, researchers aimed to determine if different presentations of a virtual ball being thrown would influence the player’s ability to catch the physical ball being thrown. The simulation showed either (1) a virtual ball tracking the real ball, (2) the real ball’s predicted trajectory, or (3) a target for where the ball would land. Impressively, results from this study show 95% of all balls were caught in the condition that matched the virtual ball tracking the real ball (1). What is more, when the ball was not rendered and instead a simple target (3) was presented, the catcher’s response became less typical of a catching response and instead to an estimation task where they had to correct for the missing visual input of the missing ball. A once fluid and natural movement appears erratic and uncertain. This small study is a huge leap towards creating more immersive, dynamic, and interactive VR environments.
Exciting work from the powerhouse Schell Games is also tapping into the transformative nature of VR experiences. Their virtual reality game I Expect You To Die simulates an escape-the-room scenario with the player as a secret agent and won best overall VR experience at the 2015 Proto Awards. Perhaps the most exciting part of their work is in games such as SuperChemVR or Water Bears VR which teach important skills from spatial reasoning to chemistry in an innovating and deeply engaging way. If this is the classroom of the future, I’d like a seat at the front!
To be sure, VR is not a panacea for education but instead a supplemental tool to deepen understanding and engage learners in a whole new way. A textbook and lecture alone cannot provide the depth and meaning of a physical walk through a working cell. But new technologies allow students to see these systems in action and provide greater understanding of important concepts. The experience of walking through the cell becomes embodied through the senses and heightens the understanding of the working cell.
To Infinity and Beyond
What we learn from The War of the Worlds, the research on embodied cognition, and emerging research on VR is that the environment is a powerful tool from which we can create meaningful experiences that can effect great changes in our ability to perceive and understand the world around us. Great teachers are already preparing our children to see the interconnectedness of content, make connections to their experiences, and to step into an active learning environment. The tools of the future should be there to support their great work and scaffold learning and inquiry on a deeper level.
If used well, tools such as virtual reality will allow learners to navigate through new worlds, help teachers create innovative learning experiences, and cultivate empathy for those around them while securing content knowledge that will fuel a lifetime of exploration and discovery.