Meet the Directors: Spotlight #3: Glenn Fox

Dr. Glenn Fox is the Head of Program Design, Strategy, and Outreach at the USC Performance Science Institute, as well as a lecturer with the USC Marshall School of Business.

Tell us about your background.  

Ever since high school, I’ve always been motivated by questions surrounding the way our minds work. Could our thoughts, as well as our actions, influence one another in a fundamental way? How can we use that knowledge to bring out the best within us, especially when facing the challenges of life? Going into college, I decided to pursue this curiosity for cognitive science alongside another passion in mechanics. I had this inventive and rather ambitious dream at the time – I’d run a shop that doubled as zen retreat, where vehicle restoration and mindful practice were done hand in hand. I enrolled at Cuesta College for formal training in automotive restoration, which was an excellent experience. From there, I continued on to UC Santa Cruz in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Psychology.

During my undergraduate studies, I discovered that my interest in the mind had more to do with the underlying structure of the brain itself. Although I was motivated to learn as much as possible about the topic, I decided that I needed access to brain imaging facilities. This brought me on a journey up north to Stanford University, where I traveled back and forth as a volunteer in one of their neuroimaging laboratories. I took part in studies related to reading development and neuroplasticity, and my positive experiences there would become the cornerstone of my love for neuroscience and neuroimaging that continues today.

To my surprise, this volunteering experience opened up an unexpected door not long afterward. I had the opportunity to interview with Antonio Demassio in 2006, who was in the process of heading up the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. He’d been looking for a research assistant with knowledge in structural imaging, which wasn’t as easy to come across in those days. I had taken this choice over the far more popular functional imaging option offered while volunteering, as it seemed like a good fit with my background in mechanics. This turned out to be the fateful coin flip that got things started for me there at the institute.

What sparked your interest in VR/AR?

The first experience with VR that really grabbed my attention was Dr. Skip Rizzo’s Bravemind project, which provides immersion therapy to veterans with PTSD using Virtual Reality. I was amazed at how his work had the power to elicit genuine emotional responses from his patients, which sparked my interest in the potential to address a wide variety of needs. From improving the function of our minds on a fundamental level, all the way to providing practice scenarios for skill-building in the real world – the possibilities are nearly endless. Take the art of public speaking, for example. It’s somewhat of a rare occurrence, yet there tends to be a lot at stake whenever this important skill is required of us. Virtual Reality can close that gap by providing countless simulations to mentally prepare us for important moments such as these, along with many others.

People tend to envision the height of VR as something fully immersive, similar to the alternate realities described in science fiction movies. Although technology continues to advance in impressive ways, it’s important to remember that the majority of our lived experience will always take place within the real world. With that in mind, the most effective application of VR should be focused on improving the quality of our everyday lives. The next question worth exploring, in this case, would surround the transfer of learning between these two contexts. Although research shows limited evidence at the time, I believe that VR has yet to live up to its promise at this point in development. When time brings out its full potential, I’m optimistic that it will become a reliable resource for skill retention from one context to the other.

My long-held relationships with the other founders of the SMART-VR Center have also driven my continued interest in the field. I’ve known Dr. Sook-Lei Liew since our graduate school days, and have been fascinated with Dr. Skip Rizzo’s work on psychology and high-stakes environments for many years. It’s been an exciting opportunity to work alongside them on a new endeavor, and I look forward to where we’ll go together as our work progresses.

Which of your professional accomplishments are you most excited about?

For many years, I studied the effects of gratitude and empathy on the human mind. Gratitude was especially interesting to me, as its practice held great potential for developing agency in the face of life’s difficulties. We ended up publishing the first direct reports of the neural correlates on gratitude, which proved that this practice is related to the brain regions for social connection, empathy, and stress relief – an incredible experience for us.

Our progress with this study motivated me to apply its use toward other aspects of the human experience, which led to founding the Performance Sciences Institute after my postdoctoral work. I wanted to find the area of greatest impact that our work could be applied to, and the obvious answer became the matter of our occupations. Most of us spend the rhythm of our daily lives in a professional setting, and this is where so much stress and potential for setback in our personal goals can occur. I wanted to do as much as possible to bring my understanding of neuroscience to the business world, helping entrepreneurs and founders develop habits and mindsets that could help lead them on the path to success. This eventually led me to pursue a full-time faculty position at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the USC Marshall School of Business. I also have some new training initiatives set to take place in the near future, which I’m excited to provide as a resource to our young entrepreneurs and founders in the making.

Is there anything on the horizon of VR and health that you’re especially looking forward to?

With all the great work being produced by my SMART-VR colleagues at the forefront of their fields, I’m very excited to see how their contributions will have a hand in shaping what’s on the horizon for the future of VR. Although my focus is more on the entrepreneurial side of our development, I’m consistently impressed and inspired by their dedication and quality of output. It has been a great experience to work alongside them as part of this incredible team.

In addition to our research projects, I’m also looking forward to the design and development of the SMART-VR Center facility that we plan to construct in the coming years. Having a community space for anyone to experience VR technology, try out the interventions we’ve created, and learn more about what we do will be an exciting way to bring people from many different disciplines together. The center can also work as an incubator for companies interested in testing and piloting new platforms and interventions, providing greater possibilities to reach a wide variety of needs.

What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a similar path?

Learn to listen to the things in life that you can’t seem to learn enough about! Whenever I’d come across a topic like this, my curiosity was impossible to satiate – that’s when I knew I was on to something worth getting into. Following this habit whenever the opportunity presented itself ultimately created the path I’ve taken in life. The same principle applies to the world of entrepreneurship, business, and nearly any other personal endeavor as well.

Anything you are passionate about, aside from AR/VR?

Pursuing creative outlets is incredibly important to me. The future will be a blend of both analog and digital, but daily life itself will continue to take place in the real world. For this reason, we should do our best to stay creative and connected to our surroundings as much as possible. I’ve kept up with my love for mechanics over the years, and I’m currently working on restoring a 1968 Chevy Pickup. Woodworking and welding are two other recent hobbies that I’ve really enjoyed as well. Spending time with my wife and new son is also something I love to do, despite all the energy it takes to keep up with a newborn baby!

To learn more about Dr. Fox, visit his profile at the USC Marshall website here. You can also follow him on Twitter at @glennrfox.