The Impact of the Internet on the Brain: What Do We Really Know?

Almost every week you hear a new report of the dangers of the impact of our new technologies: the internet, various digital devices, gaming…Here’s a wonderfully refreshing video that reviews what the research-to-date actually tells us about the impact of the Internet on the brain. Dr. Paul Howard Jones goes through popular fears about technology and discusses what the research tells us about whether or not those fears are warranted.

Dr. Jones makes many excellent points, including these two: Continue reading

Healing Isolation & Facilitating Empathy: The Power of Virtual Worlds

I just read a great blog post on the topic of Caring and caregivers in the 21st century that brought be back to one of my favorite topics, the untapped power of virtual worlds/3D game environments for healing, developing community, and learning. The author of the post, Tateru Nino, notes that Second Life‘s community has included a significant percentage of people who are struggling with some type of disability or illness, or who are caregivers and, therefore, limited in their ability to leave their homes to socialize. However, the main focus is to highlight a “game” called Caregiver Village:

“The Unity 3D based game, Caregiver Village, is a … well, if you’ll pardon the portmanteau, ‘edutainment’ game, intended to help divert and relax caregivers, while teaching them valuable skills throughout an engaging and episodic mystery/adventure, sprinkled with mini-games and sporting connections to Facebook. All of that, plus the Web-site supporting caregivers.”  [read more of this post by Tateru Nino]

Tateru Nino illustrates the power of virtual worlds. People who are “shut in” have new environments, relationships and opportunities open to them. These settings can be especially powerful in giving people options to connect when their current life situation limits their ability to do so otherwise.

I think we are only seeing the beginning of the emergence of virtual worlds and other 3D virtual settings (e.g., games) to address a diverse range of needs. Continue reading

Understanding Interpersonal Drama in Virtual Worlds

Drama Free Zone Sign Within a Virtual World

In my last blog post on the emotional reality of virtual relationships I speculated that one of the sources for the drama that is known to occur in virtual worlds might be the absence of non-verbal communication. The findings from a recent study reported in Science Daily offer support for this hypothesis. Continue reading

Virtual Reality Improves Social Attention in Autistic Kids

Important new research on one of my favorite topics–the power of virtual reality in changing human experience. I’ve excerpted this from Medscape since you have to have an account there to view this(accounts are free though):

Virtual Reality Improves Social Attention in Autistic Kids: May 24, 2011 (Honolulu, Hawaii) — Virtual reality training may help improve complex social attention in school-aged children with higher-functioning autism (HFA), suggests new research presented here at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2011 Annual Meeting.

Head-mounted virtual reality apparatus

In the pilot program, 18 children with HFA and 20 healthy controls wore head-mounted displays showing a virtual classroom with 9 “virtual avatar peers.” As the participants gave short speeches about themselves, each peer was programmed to start fading and become transparent if ignored.

Although results showed no difference in the preadolescent HFA and control children in number of looks to the avatars, the adolescent HFA children made significantly fewer looks than did their age-matched controls, signifying evidence of impairment that emerges later in life.

In addition, “the social attention of all children was malleable,” meaning the looks improved dramatically for all groups during the fade conditioning session, report the investigators.”

Life Skills for the Digital Age

In the last few months I have been thinking a lot about the skills and knowledge that we need for the digital age. I’m not talking about technology skills, but life skills. In his book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers observes that every new technology both solves problems and creates new challenges. He discusses the need, now that we are increasingly connected, to learn the art of disconnecting so we can deepen our both our real life and online experiences.

Disconnecting is not the only skill that we are now being challenged to learn. After a recent podcast interview that I did with Dr. Faye Mishna on cyberbullying and then witnessing several escalating email conflicts among colleagues, I am convinced that there are several new social skills needed to effectively manage relationships in the digital age, or at least the knowledge about where and when to apply skills in these new contexts. In addition, in my own struggles to work productively I realize that much of what I have struggled with recently has focused on figuring out how to effectively integrate technology into my work and personal life, and how to make sure that I, not the technology, am the one making choices about how and when to be connected. Continue reading

Virtual World Emigrants: Embarking for a New World

Like these cats, residents of Second Life are moving to unknown places.

Those who have been following the evolution of Second Life know that the sands are shifting again, this time spurred by news that Linden Labs will be eliminating discounts for non-profit and educational institutions January 2011. The result appears to be a mass emigration underway as Second Life refugees make their way to other grids.

The metaverse has changed significantly in the past couple of years–there are many more places to go. While there are a plethora of gaming worlds, there also has been an increase in worlds similar to Second Life, including several that use the Second Life code as their starting place. This tweet by Cathy Anderson links to a timeline of virtual worlds which illustrates the explosion:

This weekend I began exploring some of these other worlds, specifically those that share the key characteristic of Second Life that made it so attractive to educators, the ability to modify the environment and create truly original content.  It was a bit overwhelming–as the timeline above illustrates, there’s a lot out there!  But as I moved my avatar through one of the other world grids, I had a new appreciation for Second Life, in particular an appreciation for all the content created by its user community; the freedom  to create and distribute content is what has made the platform so powerful and successful. This potential is included in the new grids, too, but a quick perusal of what’s currently out there drove home the reality that those users who are migrating to these grids have their work cut out for them.

I am reminded of what happened when large numbers of people left Europe to move to the “New World” to establish the colonies in the United States: they left behind many aspects of their existing societies and began building their world anew. The new colonies had a more primitive living standard than what the colonists left behind, a trade-off they made because of the freedom and opportunity the new world promised. Similarly, the “starting over” faced by these virtual world pioneers means a return to a rougher way of virtual life.

Living in a pup tent on the sand

Ready to "Rough It" in Virtual Worlds

For those interested in the company of some fearless fellow explorers, there is the Hypergrid Adventurers Club founded by John “Pathfinder” Lester (formerly Pathfinder Linden in Second Life). I have no doubt that members of that group will be the pioneer leaders for the rest of us and will do much of the heavy lifting of settling those new worlds. Having spent only couple of hours exploring on my own, I can see there are real benefits of linking up with a group, just as there were benefits for the pioneers who settled our physical world to do the same.

For my part, the roughing it that comes with exploring these new worlds can feel intriguing–and  exhausting. After spending a couple hours exploring one new grid, I ended the night by logging into Second Life to hear an outstanding live music performance. I’m sure I will go back to explore the new worlds. But unlike the pioneers who established new worlds on our planet, it’s nice to have the option to experience the comforts of the old world at the end of the day.

Photo, Cats in Space, courtesy of WF&DT.