new research hints at 3D as a possible learning aid


A few weeks ago, I went along to a Vue cinema in central London to “participate” in a study examining what, if any, impact viewing 3D movies, versus 2D movies, has on cognitive function and physical response in children. (I qualify my participation because although I went through all same paces as the kids, my results were not included in the study, obviously. Oh, and though the kids watched a clip from The Jungle Book in either 2D or 3D, I watched a clip from Zootropolis in 3D.)

And now the results are in. Here’s the press release — which includes the key findings — in full (emphasis in the original):

Heart-racing 3D films can make children ‘smarter’ in the short term

Improvement in ‘cognitive processing’ is almost three times greater as a result of watching 3D rather than a 2D film

On top of getting the ‘brain juices flowing’, 3D also gets the heart-racing; producing 80% the excitement of a rollercoaster ride


According to a new study, 3D can sharpen a child’s brain for a protracted period after the movie has been viewed and have a short-term “brain training” effect. The study follows-on from research in 2015 which looked into the impact of the different film formats on adults.

The experiment, involving 63 children aged between seven and fourteen, comprised of a pre- and post-test design, with the participants completing a series of cognitive, social, emotional and physiological tests before and after watching a 20-minute clip from Disney’s live action version of The Jungle Book in either RealD 3D or 2D. Participants were recruited through Into Film, an educational UK-wide programme which includes a network of extra-curricular film clubs.

Commissioned in part by Vue Entertainment and conducted by behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan (Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths), the experiment revealed an improvement in ‘cognitive processing’, with the young participants demonstrating faster reaction times post 3D-clip compared to 2D. Children were found to be quicker to react in a computer-based task, showing an average decrease in response time of 43 milliseconds post-3D, almost three times greater than that of a standard format film – a decrease of 16.1 milliseconds.

From this, Fagan believes that watching films in 3D before undertaking tasks that require speed of reaction – such as those who want to improve their ability in sports or even doctors about to undertake surgery – will likely result in enhanced performance.

This ‘real world’ application was explored further, with participants tasked with playing a game of Operation before and after watching the movie clip, as a measure of concentration and attentiveness. In this study, participants were given two minutes to remove as many ‘organs’ as possible, as carefully as possible; touching the sides of the ‘incisions’ would set off a buzzer. The number of game board pieces, ‘buzzes’ and completion time were logged for each participant. Fagan found that 2D viewers set the buzzer off more often after viewing the film clip (19% increase in ‘buzzes’ on average) and 3D viewers set it off 13% less often, suggesting that 3D films can induce a type of mental engagement that 2D cannot, as well as increased attentiveness.

Over the course of the two day experiment, a smaller sample of young participants were fitted with physiological sensors in order to capture their excitement – measuring their galvanic skin response (GSR) and heart rate. GSR is a well-established, sensitive measure of ‘physiological arousal’, i.e. excitement. Disney’s The Jungle Book in 3D was found to be more exciting than standard format, producing a GSR reading 14% higher than that of a 2D film – akin to being driven twice as fast on the motorway (from 30km/h to 60km/h). 3D also was found to get the heart racing, with the average maximum recorded heart rate 17% higher for 3D films than 2D – making it comparable to 79% of a rollercoaster ride.

In addition to being cognitively stimulating and physiologically engaging, the immersive nature of 3D was also found to make for a more emotionally engaging experience, with a computer-based task using ‘emotions’ revealing that 3D resulted in a higher increase in ratings of surprise (32% versus 5% in 2D) and also a larger strength of feeling by 13%.

Patrick Fagan comments: “Following on from last year’s ‘3D Experiments’ study, we found that, just like for adults, 3D films can play the role of ‘brain training’ games and help to make children ‘smarter’ in the short term. The shortening of response times after watching 3D was almost three times as big as that gained from watching 2D; in other words, 3D helps children processing things in their environment more quickly. This is likely to be because 3D is a mentally stimulating experience which ‘gets the brain’s juices flowing’. In fact, amazingly, we also found that this impact on cognitive processing can potentially follow through into the ‘real world’, with 3D causing an enhanced performance on the surgery board-game Operation.

“The more realistic, immersive world of 3D ostensibly captures the attention of our limited brains because the experiences ‘feel’ more ‘real’. As a result, it’s also more exciting than 2D – it’s comparable to 79% of a rollercoaster ride.”

With children now facing so many technological distractions, child psychologist, Dr. Richard Woolfson is encouraged by the research findings. He said: “In an age where children’s concentration levels and attention spans are shorter than ever before and split-screening has become the norm for adults and children alike, it’s encouraging that children appear more attentive and more emotionally-sensitive after watching a movie in 3D, as well as finding the viewing experience altogether more exciting.

“An outing to the cinema has long been an enjoyable activity for parents and children, and 3D movies certainly add to the family fun. But results of this study show that young viewers can also benefit cognitively and psychologically from this exciting visual medium. So, parents can happily take their kids to a 3D movie knowing that not only is this an enjoyable family activity but that the children will gain added psychological value as well.”

Shona Gold, Head of Marketing at Vue said: “Last year we looked at how the immersive nature of 3D could potentially sharpen the brain functions of adults. This year, we were excited to build on this research, working with a great group of children to find out how the different formats performed – not just cognitively but physiologically and emotionally too. The movie-going experience is all about enjoyment, so it was great to note that a 3D film could have such an impact of the strength of emotion that children experience after viewing a film.”

Peter Woodruff, Managing Director, RealD Europe said: “We are constantly exploring and developing new technologies to make the 3D movie-going experience even better for audiences; however, in the meantime, it’s great to see the positive effects that 3D viewing has on cinema-goers.”


I also played the before and after games of Operation, and my time did improve by many seconds after I watched the 3D clip. I suggested to the researchers on the day that any improvement at all could be down to the fact that I hadn’t played that game since I was a kid — so, not for decades — and the practice I got in the first go meant it was inevitable that I’d do better on the second attempt. But of course there’s no way to know, in my individual case, whether my time would have improved less if I had watched a 2D clip instead. I’d need to be Schrödinger’s cat to have done both simultaneously!

Obviously, this is preliminary research, and only small-scale, but I find the implications fascinating. Would kids (and adults) learn material better if it were presented in some sort of 3D format? It seems like a no-brainer to surmise that virtual reality will eventually be an incredible aid to learning, with its deeper engagement in a subject, but maybe we don’t have to wait for VR to mature before we reevaluate some teaching methods.

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