One of the primary reasons that virtual worlds like Second Life fascinate me is because of what they teach us about who we are, how we know the world, and the nature of reality. One of the earliest experiences that intrigued me was how quickly I came to identify with my avatar, despite the fact that she looks nothing like me.
I recently came across a post that offered an explanation for this phenomenon happens in the brain. The author, Peter Small, discusses “body mapping” theory and describes how it might apply to virtual worlds:
Why Second Life seems so real
One of the main outcomes of this research is the evidence to suggest that the brain constructs an internal body map of a person’s physical form and another map of the external environment. This is the way evolution has shaped the working of the brain to allow humans to survive in a hostile and competitive world.
The surprise has been that the body mapping is not rigidly restricted to a person’s real body: it can be extended and transferred to objects external to the body. This can be demonstrated with a simple experiment that anyone can try out for themselves at home. Sit down at a table and place an object in front of you on the table to represent a hand. Place one of your own hands out of sight under the table. Then, get a friend to gently stroke the object on the table and at the same time stroke your hidden real hand in a similar way. Magically, the object on the table will then seem like your real hand and appear to be part of your body.
It is this phenomenon that allows participants in Second Life to identify in a realistic way with their avatars. The brain, somehow, is able to transfer the body mapping of “self” to an avatar in an artificial world. Also, the same phenomenon allows the brain to map the environment of the virtual world as if it were a real environment that their “real self” was inhabiting.
via Why Second Life seems so real. On a side note: So I just tried that experiment. It took a little while (about 30 secs or so), but it did work for me.
Our Inner Global Positioning System (GPS)
As luck (or synchronicity?) would have it, this past week I read a report of the scientific discovery of a “GPS” in the human brain called “grid cells.” Grid cells map our external environment, allow us to place ourselves within it, and might play a role in memory. Interestingly, the scientists used virtual environments to conduct their experiments.
Now, let me be clear. I am not a neuroscientist. Nor do I play one on TV. But it sure sounds to me like these “grid cells” might related to the body mapping theory described by Peter Small. And in searching to learn more about “body mapping theory” I came across a blog post by Dr. Owen McNally, about our internal sense of our body. He writes, “the study of how the brain processes emotions and bodily sensations has pointed some psychologists, neuroscientists, physicians, and philosophers in recent decades towards the idea of the experienced, phenomenologically lived body as the basis of consciousness and the self (or “self”).” Note that the emphasis here is mine, not his.
If McNally and his colleagues are correct and the “phenomenologically lived body” is the key to our sense of “Self,” then grid cells would seem to be a core element in the lived body.
Beyond intriguing my inner geek, it would be fair to ask what significance the above content might have. I think that the concept of the phenomenologically lived body and its basis in the brain are the key to expanding our understanding of the bodymind, as well as illuminating the potential of virtual environments for healing and growth. A while ago I blogged about a woman with Parkinson’s Disease who regained partial use of her legs after a period of time practicing Tai Chi with her avatar in Second Life. Anecdotes like her story suggest the power of the body mapping process in a virtual world to change the experience of the phenomenologically lived body, which, in this case, appeared to change the abilities of the physical body. Finally, it’s interesting to note that such phenomena are consistent with Eastern spiritual concept of the “subtle body,” which is thought to have the power to heal the physical body.