Psychology, Physiology, and BioMedical Design

Juniors use virtual reality to explore the connection between mind and body

What can a drone teach you about human psychology? How about an Arduino that’s connected to a muscle and nerve-stimulating TENS unit? Juniors in Upper School teacher Laura Akesson’s BioMedical Design class are using virtual reality, drones, Arduino circuit boards, heart rate monitors, and other technology in a unit that explores how psychology impacts physiology and vice versa.

The students started the unit by watching a TED talk about how technology, specifically virtual reality (VR), can be used to build empathy for others. Mrs. Akesson then involved the students in helping to design several experiments, which they then performed in class with the help of Upper School photography teacher John Alley and several of his students. The experiments were designed to scientifically analyze the impact of different experiences on the students’ emotions and physiological responses.

“What I love about this project is that data analysis helps us understand human behavior in a big picture way,” Mrs. Akesson said. “It allowed students to examine claims that virtual reality can generate deeper empathy and allow greater access to emotions than printed articles or normal video. It provided them experiential, anecdotal, and numerical data to effectively analyze the use of technology in our society.”

For example, in an attempt to quantify fear of heights, blood pressure sensors and heart rate monitors were used while flying a drone, and compared to readings when watching a video. They were used again when experiencing a scary video using VR versus watching the video on the screen. Both groups looked at anecdotal, self-reported evidence, and then compared the difference in the results.

The class used a similar methodology when exploring their responses to information about the refugee crisis. Three distinct groups of students learned about the crisis from either an article, a video, or a VR experience. BioMed student-generated questionnaires were administered before and after each method of content delivery. The data showed that the efficacy of VR in generating empathy was much greater than reading an article, but was statistically equal to that of watching a 360 video. The data was useful in either backing up or refuting comments made during the subsequent discussions. It included conversation not only about empathy, but also about the effectiveness of VR in the classroom and teaching.

“The human nervous system, with its ties to both emotional responses and muscular control, is a truly complex system,” Mrs. Akesson said. “Even something seemingly as simple as voluntarily closing your fingers has a lot of variables.”

Mrs. Akesson explained how students, in a similar lesson, explored intentional muscle control by programming Arduino boards to pick up electrical signals in muscles. When the Arduinos were connected to two students and a TENS unit, one student could flex his or her arm, sending electrical signals through the Arduino, causing movement in the second student’s arms and fingers.

“We are educating our students on the human experience,” Mrs. Akesson said. “As humans, we think we always have control over our own bodies, but in this lesson, we’re learning how that’s not always true. There’s a strong connection between psychology and physiology. These lessons open up a conversation among the students about how virtual reality and other technology can be used to more fully understand this connection, and even to increase empathy in society.”





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