Virtual or Real? the Mind in Cyberspace

By Cartwright, Glenn F. | The Futurist, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

Virtual or Real? the Mind in Cyberspace


Cartwright, Glenn F., The Futurist


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. …

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