Science of Learning - Srini Pillay, M.D.

Published in Spring 2023

Are you one of those people who has been ignoring the metaverse because it sounds like some trendy technology that has no relevance to you? Well, I’m writing this article to compel you to open your mind to the metaverse movement, because it’s happening. It’s time to stop dabbling and get serious about virtual reality (VR) and metaverse-based learning, and to follow the examples of companies like Bank of America, Takeda, Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb, who have strategic plans and serious budget commitments to scale VR across the enterprise.

What is the connection between learning and well-being?

While you may be familiar with learning in the metaverse or VR, you may be wondering what this has to do with well-being. Apart from stress and anxiety reduction improving learning by opening the brain to new information, there’s a new kind of learning that will be fundamental to your organization, and it’s called reskilling for well-being.

When I work with organizations, most people know that they’re burned out and that they need to make changes, but they either have no time for it, don’t know where to start or struggle to make it a habit. The metaverse offers an opportunity for learning and development (L&D) to facilitate self-care.

Why is the metaverse uniquely suited to well-being?

In the metaverse, you appear as an avatar. Unlike current VR experiences, the metaverse can be a social environment that enhances connections and reduces loneliness. Social isolation is not only emotionally challenging, but it can increase the risk of plaques in your carotid arteries and increase the chances of death from a heart attack or stroke. The metaverse can help to prevent this.

I experienced firsthand how powerful it can be to choose your avatar. In general, people think of the “self” as fixed, but adopting the identity of an avatar may increase empathy and agency and this may also change the way in which people make decisions or exercise their creativity. In fact, people may make decisions that run counter to their own. This may also promote self-expression which can impact mortality by decreasing the risk of cancer or heart disease. Avatars can be anonymous and attend voluntary group seminars on well-being or mental health without being recognized.

Also, prior studies have demonstrated that choosing an ideal avatar can increase physical activity in people who are overweight.

In the metaverse, experiences of awe may engage five processes-shifts in neurophysiology: a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial relationality, greater social integration and a heightened sense of meaning-that benefit well-being. Awe is a complex and transformative emotion that has been hypothesized to be an intervention for depression. Awe can also induce a form of mindfulness that enhances well-being. The metaverse is an ideal context in which awe can be induced through experiences of art that sweep people off their feet.

One of the remarkable features of the metaverse is that your capabilities are not limited as they are in the material world. As a result, you can float, levitate, and experience non-ordinary states of consciousness. If non-ordinary states of consciousness like mindfulness or transcendental meditation can protect your genes or reduce inflammation, the metaverse could also offer this promising opportunity for study.

Health and well-being in the metaverse is anything but science fiction. It is a unique context in which learning self-care and mental and physical well-being can be enhanced.