Your connection to the University of Michigan-Dearborn | Fall 2018

Eye on Research: Virtual Reality

Virtual reality illustration
Virtual reality illustration
Illustration by: James Yang

Not long ago, some philosophers and scientists argued that humans were distinct from other animals by possessing complex intelligence, language, self-awareness, tool production and use, and other sophisticated cognitive means of problem solving.

But new work by scientists across the world — including Psychology Associate Professor Francine Dolins — is challenging those assumptions.

Dolins and her international team of co-researchers are using virtual reality to investigate how primates learn and construct internal representations of space and environment, which can then be applied to the real world. With a virtual world set up to appear like a natural habitat, the research examines spatial problem-solving behaviors when subjects are faced with real-world challenges such as finding food and avoiding competitors.

"By observing our subjects’ behaviors as they search for food, exploit novel routes and deal with competitors, we gain insight into their underlying spatial knowledge."

Currently, Dolins and student researchers are collecting cognitive data from human participants and bonobos (a species of chimpanzee). Dolins also conducted a series of VR studies with children, adult humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, aimed to understand spatial decision-making when navigating in simple-to-complex virtual environments.

Together, these studies allow Dolins to assess differences and similarities in human and non-human primate cognitive abilities, and to highlight the cognitive links shared between the close primate relatives — chimpanzees, bonobos and humans.

“By observing our subjects’ behaviors as they search for food, exploit novel routes and deal with competitors, we gain insight into their underlying spatial knowledge,” she said. “Advancing the understanding of intelligence in its many forms is critically important.”

To that end, the project has potential for the study of diseases, such as the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s, in which spatial memory is often the first and most vulnerable to loss. The research also may extend to helping understand dyscalculia, as there’s a link between loss or disability of spatial memory linked to mathematical difficulties.

In support of this project, Dolins received the university’s first Templeton World Charity Foundation grant, which is a section of the John Templeton Foundation.

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