Metafocus: Interview with Maria Johnson of UT Dallas Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training Department

Nearly a decade ago, the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas–Dallas created a virtual reality social cognition training (VR-SCT) department. They’re doing really cool work using VR for cognitive development, with a focus on children with autism, ADHD, and other social learning differences.

From the VR-SCT website:

The Brain Performance Institute at Center for BrainHealth offers a scientifically based social cognitive training program that uses a motivational virtual-learning platform. Clinicians coach clients through real-life scenarios in a video game­­–like environment, providing a safe place to practice social interactions in a virtual reality school, home, playground, or coffee shop.

In the virtual world, face-tracking technology allows users to see their own and others’ facial emotions and reactions in real time. An expert clinician initiates nonscripted conversation that instills social brain strategies to help individuals reach personal goals.
This approach has been shown to build social-reasoning skills and increase confidence in real-world interactions. Individuals practice initiating conversations, navigating through social dilemmas, sharing thoughts and ideas, and developing social interactions.

I recently conducted an interview with Maria Johnson, the head of pediatric social cognition virtual training programs at the Center for BrainHealth/Brain Performance Institute. We discussed this innovative program and her involvement. She shared what’s exciting, what’s surprising, and what’s still unknown. She finished with an inspiring message for learners of all ages and abilities. The VR-SCT program demonstrates how advancements in VR create new educational tools, research methods, and whole fields of exploration that can greatly benefit the eLearning community.

Note: Today’s column is not an advertisement or endorsement for their program; they’re simply providing a fantastic service that we can all learn from. I found it fascinating, and I think you will, too. (The interview has been lightly edited.)

Matt Sparks (MS): What is the mission of the program?

Maria Johnson (MJ): To deliver science-based innovations that enhance how individuals think, work, and live. For our pediatric virtual reality social cognition training (VR-SCT) population, our mission extends to make positive changes in the lives of those with autism, ADHD, and other social-learning differences. We aim to prepare our social learners for success and empower them with strategies to unlock their brains’ true social potential.

MS: How did the program come into being? Who started it and why? Is there a story behind this?

MJ: In 2008, our VR-SCT was developed by cognitive neuroscientists, clinicians, and game developers at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. We wanted to explore the capabilities of social-reasoning training using an immersive virtual reality platform to help individuals achieve social independence and confidence.

In 1999, Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman founded the Center for BrainHealth, a research institute dedicated to enhancing brain health in health, injury, and disease, with a vision of improving lives today and translating groundbreaking discoveries into practical clinical application. In 2013, the vision brought about the establishment of the Brain Performance Institute, a place that gives the community access to science-based innovations. To date, the social cognition program is one of a suite of programs at the Brain Performance Institute that helps people of all ages—from schoolchildren to healthy adults, as well as those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia—learn how to enhance their brain health and performance.

MS: Who is a typical student or client?

MJ: Any child who is struggling socially, ages eight and older. Our program is best suited for students with autism, ADHD, social anxiety, shy or withdrawn behavior, or social communication challenges who are missing social connections with their peers, family members, teachers, and coaches. We recommend that students have strong verbal language skills, can follow two-step directions, and have at or above normal cognition. Children with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and learning and attention challenges are not excluded from the program.

MS: Why do clients come to your lab? What problems do they have? What do they hope to accomplish?

MJ: Ultimately, creating friendships and knowing how to recognize a good friend from someone with “tricky” intentions is what we hear most from families. Typically, parents will reach out to us because their child is struggling with making and keeping friends, managing social conflicts (disagreements with peers), initiating and maintaining conversations with others, and expressing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions pro-socially. Parents really hope that their children will become more independent and conversational socially, and not rely on others (parents, teachers, siblings, etc.) to “force” them into social interactions. Some parents want their children to learn how to stand up for themselves and make strong social choices if they are being picked on. Other [parents] want to help remedy the challenges their child’s “inflexibility/black-and-white thinking” pose to working cooperatively and collaboratively with other children. Overall self-assertion and adaption is a central theme.

MS: Can you tell me about a success story?

MJ: The biggest success stories are always the clients who reach a point where they feel they have control over their social environment and that they have strategies that they can use across settings. A specific example comes to mind about a 16-year-old client who had fallen victim to cyberbullying, and her self-esteem really took a hit. When she first started our program, ADHD and anxiety symptoms were causing significant challenges. She had a hard time expressing her ideas and viewing the bigger picture of social interactions. By the end of the program, she felt she was in control of her social destiny and reported that she felt less confused and more confident in her day-to-day interactions.

MS: Can you tell me about a difficult case?

MJ: The most difficult cases are usually clients who are seen as “making the choice” to be distant or defensive when that is not the case at all. The biggest challenge is finding ways to introduce strategies that they see as beneficial to them, and our virtual platform aids tremendously in this. In traditional therapy models, I would give a resistant client a strategy and have them practice it all week long. The downside was, the feedback they received as they tried to implement the new concepts in the real world was unpredictable. However, with our [VR] technology, I can give them the strategies, and then they can practice the concepts and ideas immediately in the virtual world where our clinician team has control over the intensity and type of feedback they receive. This allows clients to begin to shift into a more malleable mindset where they work with the coach collaboratively. This shift is where we see growth and better insight develop, thus they are able to really start considering the impact they are making on others.

MS: What is most exciting about the work you’re doing there?

MJ: I love being a part of such an innovative approach to enhancing the way people think, reason, and relate to each other using virtual technology. Our ability to quickly translate science research into tangible programs for the people who need them is exciting. It typically can take more than 40 years for neuroscientific research to be translated into services, so for us to be part of an organization that is doing this so quickly and seeing meaningful results is the most rewarding. Additionally, I enjoy collaborating with the other teams in the building that are working with different populations. This multidisciplinary approach to enhancing and creating new services is very inspiring and motivating, moving us toward being THE leaders in brain health locally and nationwide.

MS: What is most surprising about the work you’re doing?

MJ: The statistically significant behavioral and cognitive change that takes place after just 10 hours of training is remarkable. Science shows that short, intensive, and immersive training is how our brains learn best. This allows families to see results much more quickly than traditional intervention models. Once the student completes the initial 10 hours of training over a five-week period, we can make recommendations for occasional booster sessions customized to clients’ specific social needs.

MS: What questions remain unanswered about the work you’re doing?

MJ: Currently, we are investigating whether a more immersive experience could enhance the clients’ experience and outcomes. Also, we are studying the social brain and how the amygdala (our emotional brain) can override the frontal lobe (our logic and reasoning brain) when experiencing states of anxiety, fear, depression, or mood dysregulation. We are exploring other avenues in which virtual reality training can better support social-emotional and mental health. We currently have research underway that may lead to new programs and solutions in these areas.

MS: What could educators or trainers learn from your work?

MJ: The brain is resilient. We do not have a predetermined set of cells that limits our intellectual and cognitive capacities. We can engage our minds in innovative ways to promote brain health and brain performance at any age. At the Center for BrainHealth and its Brain Performance Institute, children do not “age out” of opportunities to unlock their potential; the window is not closed if you do not get early intervention services. Our platform and training reaches individuals across the age span and diagnosis.

MS: Besides your website, what other resources (books, journals, websites, podcasts, etc.) should someone check out if they’re interested in learning more?

MJ: We encourage readers to attend our Center for BrainHealth February lecture series; participate in a high-performance brain training—programs are available for educators, corporations, executives, and teens; and subscribe to our BrainMatters newsletter. We have several videos on our YouTube channel and are always updating our Facebook page with current events and happenings at the Center for BrainHealth. (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted while the February lecture series was in progress. The series has ended, but full-length videos of the lectures are posted here.)

MS: Do you have an “ask” for me or my readers? How can we help you?

MJ: We really want your readers to know that you are never too old or too young to change your brain. Almost anyone, including high performers as well as those who may have struggled academically, has the ability to unlock more brain potential. Learn more at the Center for BrainHealth website.

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