EEG study of virtual learning demonstrates worsened learning outcomes and increased mirror neuron activation

(1) Orange County School of the Arts, Santa Ana, California, (2) University of California at San Diego, San Diego, California
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The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated virtual forms of schooling and learning, which has been a challenging adjustment that may continue to be required with resurgences in infection or future disease outbreaks. In order to improve the effectiveness of virtual learning, we need a better understanding of any cognitive limitations associated with virtual learning formats and technologies. This study examined the differences between in-person dance learning and virtual dance learning, as measured by mirror neuron activation and learning outcomes. My hypothesis was that virtual learning induces a lower level of mirror neuron activation in the brain (as approximated by mu rhythm band power) than in-person learning, which I expected to coincide with worse learning outcomes. In this study, the electroencephalography (EEG) brain waves of eight participants were recorded while the participants watched and learned two dances: one over a computer screen and another via live, in-person demonstration. At the end of each demonstration, participants were asked to perform the routine from memory and were scored on a 5-point rubric. As hypothesized, participants scored lower on the performance rubric when learning virtually versus in-person. However, contrary to expectations, the EEG data showed that participants actually had higher mirror neuron activation when learning virtually versus in-person. This study demonstrated a statistically significant suppression of mu rhythm power, which is a proxy for heightened mirror neuron activity, for virtual learning compared to in-person learning. This illustrates that, while virtual dance learning is harder than in-person dance learning, when participants are asked to try to learn new movements over a screen, their mirror neurons are more highly engaged than when learning in-person. These findings have broader implications for both the effectiveness and mental exertion or cognitive load of virtual learning.

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