The technology of virtual reality will give us whole new worlds to explore, but a psychologist warns that we must proceed with caution.
Few scientists working on virtual reality and its applications today have considered the effects of such technology on consciousness. There are many questions that remain to be answered. For example, what happens to the normal mind when it loses contact with reality? What happens when we enter an alternate reality and cannot tell it from the "real world"? What will happen if we find we cannot, or do not want to, return to the real world? And what will happen to us if we become "lost" in cyberspace?
Strangely, the developers of virtual reality seem largely unconcerned by the possible dangers inherent in launching individuals into another reality. Few of them have given any thought as to whether or not all cybernauts will return safely, unscathed by their experience.
Virtual Reality and Cyberspace
Virtual reality has been with us for millennia in the form of imagination, literature, theater, and more recently, radio, film, and television. However, the modern definition of virtual reality has come to mean a computer-mediated, multisensory experience, one designed to trick our senses and convince us that we are "in another world."
At present, only computers hold the potential for dynamically controlling and synchronizing input to all of the senses in order to accomplish this feat. One might then define virtual reality as the complete computer control of human senses. Virtual reality becomes a way of sensing, feeling, and thinking. The computer controls sensation by controlling the input to the senses, altering experience, emotion, and ultimately thought. New perceptions and ideas may arise as a consequence of such modified sensory input.
The term cyberspace was coined by science-fiction writer William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer. He defined it as "a consensual hallucination." For our purposes, cyberspace may be described as the sharing by two or more individuals of a virtual-reality experience. For example, operating a virtual puppet in a video game represents an individual virtual reality. When another player's puppet enters your puppet's space and begins to interact, the common space they share is cyberspace. Just as virtual reality is a way of sensing, feeling, and thinking individually, so cyberspace becomes a way of communicating, participating, and working together. By entering the world of cyberspace, we can change how we communicate, participate, interact, and work with one another. And new thoughts, perceptions, and ideas may emerge as a result of our interactions in cyberspace.
There are, understandably, concerns about what some of these new perceptions may be and about whether or not they are in any way detrimental. For example, the more senses that are involved at once, the more immersed one may become in virtual reality and/or cyberspace, and the harder it may become to distinguish the real world from artificial ones. Research is continuing to determine the parameters that define immersion. So far, it has been found that a feeling of visual immersion occurs only when the field of view is at least 60 |degrees~. Because the senses normally work together to channel input to the brain, manipulation of all sensory inputs fosters the perception of an alternate reality. If participants feel as though they are a part of a virtual world, a feeling of total immersion may occur.
Unfortunately, there is very little psychological knowledge to help guide experts along this new path of technological development. For most of this century, as the unreliable techniques of introspection and self-report fell into disfavor, the study of human consciousness became almost taboo in a field dominated by the more operationally oriented behaviorists. Introspection lacked reliability and therefore validity. This lack of experiential data is proving to be somewhat of a handicap to research into virtual reality, which depends upon psychological processes (such as perception) that are intimately associated with conscious activity. At precisely the time we need to know more about consciousness, we find that there is a dearth of knowledge. Concerns about Consciousness
In 1991, an experimental graduate course called "Consciousness, Virtual Reality, and Cyberspace in Education" was developed at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Its objective was to explore how the new technology of virtual reality, and the creation of the accompanying cyberspace, will force us to re-examine our notions of human consciousness, as well as to understand how virtual reality may finally provide us with new tools for its further exploration. Course participants reviewed both classical and contemporary theories of consciousness in an attempt to determine ways in which virtual reality might impinge on both conscious and unconscious psychological processes, as well as the possible outcomes of such impacts. Students in the course also engaged in an on-line computer conference to discuss these issues. One of the major concerns expressed by the participants was the degree to which virtual reality might prove harmful. Some of the physical dangers associated with virtual reality are already known. Head-mounted displays, for instance, have been found to cause disorientation, vertigo, and nausea.
However, little is known about those aspects of virtual reality that may interfere with normal psychological processes. It is possible that interference with these processes may put certain "at risk" individuals in mental or emotional peril. Those at risk include drug users, people with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, and the emotionally unstable. Even people with minor neuroses or perceptual problems may find that their sensations and reactions are exaggerated in virtual reality. Their residual memories and learning may even become distorted upon returning to the real world. Psychological Aspects Of Virtual Reality
In addition to affecting more-fragile individuals, virtual reality may affect persons not considered at risk, making it difficult for them to adjust to a new psychology in virtual reality. Ordinary psychological principles, ones that we take for granted in the real world, either do not exist or operate quite differently in the virtual world. Here are some differences:
* Reality contact. Reality contact is often used by psychiatrists as a measure of successful adjustment to the world around us and as an indicator of mental health. In fact, a lack of reality contact is often associated with poor adjustment or even mental illness. Paradoxically, though, it is precisely this loss of at least some reality contact that is the price of admission to the virtual world.
In the real world, major disturbances in perception--which are often indicative of schizophrenia--consist of various forms of hallucinations, which can affect all of the senses. Yet, virtual reality is the deliberate manipulation of the senses in order to produce a kind of hallucinatory state. The difference, of course, is that the virtual-reality voyager is presumably a willing traveler and that the experience is well controlled. Unwilling or unsuspecting participants of virtual reality might think that they were experiencing mental illness or, at the very least, a "bad trip." There is thus a very fine line separating some kinds of virtual-reality experiences from certain schizophrenic-like states.
* Parallel communications and lives. During McGill's graduate course, students participated in computer conferencing as a part of their assignment. Later analysis of the data indicated that the on-line discussions included personal experiences and other material that were not discussed face-to-face during the seminar. It was as if the computer conferencing were a parallel form of communication and the sharing that took place there occurred on a different plane. To a casual observer, the on-line discussions would appear to involve a different group of people than those in the class. To the informed observer, however, the communication concerned a somewhat different aspect of existence--a kind of parallel life.
Similarly, it has been reported that participants in multi-user dungeons (MUDs)--a form of social computer gaming--often create whole parallel lives and have been known to spend as many as 120 hours a week engaged in such on-line activities. Their interactions over the Internet (a national network of computer networks) resemble a parallel life, often with a completely different set of physical, social, and emotional attributes. While some critics have decried this fixation as dangerous, other observers have suggested that the computer games provide an opportunity to explore usually unavailable aspects of the self. In this sense, "MUDing" can be both instructive and therapeutic.
* Alternate realities and states. Virtual-reality pioneer Myron Krueger originally used the term "artificial reality" to describe the virtual playgrounds that we are attempting to construct today. To him, the term implied the deliberate creation of an alternate reality. Alternate realities, also associated with "altered states," are nothing new. As early as the mid-1970s, computer conferencing was recognized as an "altered state" of communication. The creation of the first MUD in 1979 lent a recreational aspect to computer communication, and today work is progressing to improve the social possibilities of virtual reality by adding audio, video, and interactive windows to MUDs. Multi-user games are multiplying: Some 207 such games, using 13 different kinds of software, were residents on the Internet as of the fall of 1992. In the future, the Internet will support more and more nontextual applications. "Talk Internet" (the digitization and transmission of actual voices) already exists, and on May 22, 1993, "Wax, or The Discovery of Television Among the Bees" became the first movie to be transmitted, however crudely, over the Internet. As more nontextual applications find their way onto the Internet, the number and variety of alternate realities producing altered states will increase. It is highly possible that the psychological quality of these altered states may range from broad euphoria to mild dislocation to severe psychotic breakdown.
* Embodiment and disembodiment. One of the most remarkable things about virtual reality and cyberspace is the potential not only to shed one's body, but to gain a new and perhaps vastly different body. Disembodiment is necessary--some might say a prerequisite--to leaving the real world. But disembodiment and the rematerialization into a virtual body is not required to visit all types of cyberspace. For example, electronically flitting about the current textual Internet and browsing through the virtual libraries of the world does not require a virtual body. Neither does using the Internet as a virtual laboratory or classroom. Similarly, users of networks such as Usenet, bulletin-board systems, and electronic mail require no artificial bodies.
Certain types of game playing, acting, dancing, and simulated physical activities, however, will require virtual bodies, perhaps even different senses, strengths, and abilities. But "giving" people a new, and possibly superior, body in virtual reality raises potential problems. Given such a perfect virtual body, a quadriplegic might resist returning to the real world. Spinal-cord research might fall by the wayside if it turned out to be cheaper to supply paralysis victims with perfect virtual bodies rather than go through costly and complicated surgery.
* Gender swapping. In the virtual world, one is neither expected nor required to keep real-world attributes, such as size or gender. Consequently, the virtual world becomes a place of experimentation and exploration. It is possible to explore different aspects of oneself and to examine one's identity. One of the earliest experimentations observed in on-line discussions was the phenomenon of gender swapping--the deliberate assumption of the opposite gender as an experiment to "try on" a different persona and experience a different facet of existence. One can be any gender in these on-line discussions. While people experimenting with a counterfeit gender may disappoint potential suitors, they appear to satisfy various needs of their own.
* The virtual ego-center. With computers both controlling and extending our senses, it becomes possible to project one's ego-center away from its usually perceived site to another location entirely. The relocation of the ego-center is not unknown in history. While people perceived their heart as the ego-center during the Middle Ages, today they are more likely to perceive the brain as the seat of the self. However, the prospect of electronically projecting the ego-center into a virtual body, or to any virtual space beyond the real body, is a totally new phenomenon.
* The decentered self. Creating a virtual ego-center decenters the self. While this decentering can be illuminating and instructive, it can also be destabilizing and destructive. It is wonderful to imagine that virtual reality will facilitate the decentering process, thus fostering increased charity, empathy, and compassion. The risk, however, is that in some individuals the decentering process may produce weakened self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness and insignificance. Such a downward slide could be dangerous to the integrity of the real person and, in extreme cases, lead to self-destructive acts.
* Multiple identities. If it is possible in virtual reality or cyberspace to enter an altered state, become disembodied, swap genders, create a virtual ego-center, decenter the self, and assume a different identity, then it may also be possible to assume more than one identity at the same time. In this context, the exponential increase in multiple-personality disorders in recent decades may be of more than just passing interest. While often viewed in the real world as a manifestation of mental illness or personality disorder, having multiple, serial, and simultaneous personae in cyberspace may not only be possible, but may even be encouraged as a part of interacting with others.
* Distributed being. If one can assume multiple identities, either serially or simultaneously, then perhaps the self can be reintegrated--recreated as a single entity with multiple ego-centers. This is broadly representative of a kind of distributed being, the nature of which is interesting to ponder. Such persons might differ from an ordinary individual by excelling at problem solving, for instance. They could see the problem from different angles all at once, thus proving to be on the path to broad-mindedness and enlightenment. On the other hand, the distributed being might grow to be intolerant of others who had not attained the same level of perceptual proficiency. Though no one knows exactly how distributed beings will evolve and behave, the prospect of being able to distribute one's being easily through cyberspace is likely to result in a reshaped personality, improved understanding, increased compassion, and heightened global awareness of the real world.
* Dissociative reactions and psychotic breaks. Virtual reality could potentially alter social interaction, human consciousness, and even what it means to be human. More urgent still are virtual reality's serious implications for mental health, particularly for individuals on drugs or already impaired in dealing with reality.
Virtual reality may bring with it new kinds of emotional disturbances and mental illnesses. The twenty-first century may well be the century of technologically induced disaffection, characterized by an increased sense of loneliness, alienation, powerlessness, and disembodiment.
The dangers inherent in virtual reality and cyberspace are real. One might well imagine a future "cyberspace travel advisory" like this: "Visitors to cyberspace today reported a number of psychotic breaks and pathogenic states. Only travelers who are well equipped emotionally and understand the psychological terrain should venture there."
Glenn F. Cartwright is a professor of educational psychology and counseling. His address is McGill University, 3700 McTavish, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1Y2, Canada.…