I Could Do This in My Sleep

Most of us are familiar with the idea of muscle memory: You do something often enough that you no longer have to think about doing it. Riding a bike, skating, chopping onions … it’s like your brain turns off, and your body kicks in. It somehow remembers how to repeat the task.

But is this actually true? Can our bodies actually remember how to do things?

Technically speaking, no. But while our bodies can’t actually remember how to do things, it turns out that there’s a significant amount of research that reveals the brain science behind so-called “muscle memory.” It’s this brain science that lays the foundation for skills training in VR.

Cognitive Skills versus Behavioral Skills

When it comes to learning skills, the brain has evolved in such a way that it has allocated certain parts to learning some skills and other parts to learning other skills. Some parts of the brain are devoted to learning cognitive skills, like learning how to use software, program a computer or perform accounting. Even when we are proficient at these skills, they still feel effortful. They require concentration and attention. We can’t shut off our brains when doing them, because we’ll make mistakes if we do.

Other parts of the brain are devoted to learning behavioral skills, like learning to throw a football, drive a car or fly a plane. When we are proficient at these skills, they feel effortless; it feels like we’ve turned our brains off. How many times have you driven home and become completely lost in thought, only to realize that you’re pulling into the driveway? Rest assured: Your brain is still functioning, and it’s controlling your behavior, but it doesn’t require the same concentration and effort required for cognitive skills.

The Role of Dopamine in Strengthening Skills

What’s going on here? What is it about these different brain systems and learning that leads us to feel like behavioral skills are effortless and cognitive skills are effortful? The short answer is that the behavioral skills part of the brain is training the body at the neurochemical level. Behavioral skill learning involves learning by doing: The learner performs a task and receives immediate corrective feedback. If the task is performed correctly, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which increases the likelihood that the learner will perform that task correctly again. If the task is performed incorrectly, dopamine is not released, which decreases the likelihood that the learner will perform that task incorrectly again. With practice, the skill is imprinted at the physiological and neurological level. It’s literally in our neurons, and these neurons drive our muscles. Ergo, “muscle memory” is not that far-fetched after all.

VR Engages the Behavioral Skills Learning System in the Brain

VR is ideal for technical skill learning for two reasons. First, the immersive nature of VR — the feeling of presence along with the ability to perform the task — is ideal for engaging the behavioral skills learning system. Second, the VR environment is full of rich, robust and consistent learning cues that enhance behavioral skills learning. Users learn by doing, receive immediate corrective feedback and engage in physical repetitions of the technical skill they are learning. This process promotes strong muscle memory and, ultimately, the formation of habits.

VR Is the Ideal Platform for Training for Retention

The goal of all training, including technical skills training, is to convey information that learners will store in long-term memory. It does no good to train an individual to perfection today, only to have that information forgotten tomorrow or next week. But the brain is actually hardwired to forget. Our brains have adapted to our ever-changing environments because we can’t possibly remember everything. Just like our hard drives on our computers, our brains have limited storage capacity.

For technical skills to be retained and to guide long-term behavior, they must be stored and represented in long-term memory. We must train for retention. The best way to train for retention is to allow learners to practice the new skill often and to perfection. This process requires periodic testing of their technical skill proficiency, followed by targeted retraining of skills that they have learned poorly or forgotten.

VR offers an ideal platform for training for retention. If learners have access to a VR headset, they can obtain technical skills practice 24/7. Importantly, with appropriately constructed training content, learners can practice technical skills that they will likely face on a day-to-day basis, but they can also be presented with technical challenges that occur less frequently but add significant value to their skills. Periodic testing and targeted retraining in VR speed the transition to long-term muscle memory and ultimately promote the formation of habits.

VR Training Successfully Transfers to Real-World Environments

When it comes to technical skills training, there’s no replacement for training and practice in the real world. The main roadblock is time and cost. It’s expensive and time-consuming to train airline mechanics with real jet engines or nuclear plant technicians with real nuclear materials. VR training holds so much promise in technical skills training because it’s cost- and time-effective.

Despite this potential, the most important question still remains unanswered: Do technical skills learned in VR transfer to the real world? The airline industry has relied on flight simulators for decades to train their pilots, because it’s cheaper and safer to crash a virtual 737 than it is to crash a real 737. And the U.S. military has long relied on combat simulators to train their soldiers and sailors. A number of scientific studies suggest significant transfer of training from virtual to real environments. These VR training studies range from tasks enhanced with VR instruction to complex skills like heart surgery. In all cases, VR training led to significant transfer to the real-world task. Although efficacy studies of this sort should be conducted as new applications of VR to technical skills training are developed, these results are promising.