Virtual Lives

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.”  – William James

With advances in virtual reality, and more recently augmented reality, gamers are increasingly excited about the prospects of more immersive and engaging experiences, forgetting that man developed the supreme virtual reality machine tens of thousands of years ago – and use it everyday to navigate the world!

In his recent book, The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger argues persuasively that consciousness is a form of virtual reality machine – an interface that helps us navigate our way around the world, and (merely) our subjective perception of the world (what he calls the  “appearance of a world”).  Interestingly, he uses not only normal experiences of consciousness, but some of the more unusual examples of conscious experience such as out of body experiences (OBE) along with virtual bodies and phantom limbs, to support his argument that consciousness is a simplified model of ourselves (by which I mean our bodies) which helps us manage the complexity of changing external environments and social contexts.

He uses the striking example of the “rubber hand” experiment at the start of the book to kick off his argument.  The experiment is simple, and you can try yourself by simply sitting at a table placing one hand under the table, and placing a rubber hand (ie a rubber glove) on top of the table where your missing hand should be.  If you now stroke both your hand (under the table) and the rubber hand, you will soon (usually in 1-2 minutes) have the perception the rubber hand is yours and is attached to you via a missing arm.  This is caused by the change in your mind’s self model, which is changed to include the rubber hand.  This is similar to the sensation that you get when using a tool that it becomes an extension of a body – for example if you walk with a stick while keeping your eyes closed you will soon “feel” tactile sensations from the contact of the stick with the ground.  This is a phenomenally useful evolutionary development, possibly explaining the advantage of man over other species with his ability to easily use tools to perform many different functions.  This effect has been demonstrated in other primates as well as humans.

Another more sophisticated example is that of an elite athlete: for example, a tennis player, who’s racquet becomes an extension of her own body and completely integrated into the body’s self model.  When a tennis player watches her opponent serve, she cannot possibly judge and react to visual perception of the movement of the ball before hitting the ball back (or not) – the ball simply moves too fast for this to be possible.  However, she is able to perceive subtle clues in her opponents stance, time of the ball in the air etc to “guess” where the ball will go, and then use learnt (instinctive perhaps) behaviours to play.  Nearly everything we do in navigating the world, picking up objects, using tools and moving through space is actually based on our mind’s predictive model of the world, so we are “experiencing” the world before it actually happens.  To put it bluntly, our experience of the world is actually our own model of the world and not the real thing!

Most of the sensory information that comes into our brains is processed unconsciously, and consciousness only comes into play when we meet a more difficult task which needs conscious thought.  Metzinger argues that one of the differences of consciousness from most behaviour is that it allows us to “attend to” specific information – it helps is focus in situations where we need to be more context sensitive.  He cites the interesting example of sleepwalking – contrary to popular myth sleepwalkers regularly hurt themselves and often display behaviour which is closer to automaton or robot than human.  This is very probably because in sleep our self model switches off, making us much more vulnerable to changes in external context (which is why we walk into doors and other objects when we are distracted).

Consciousness helps us understand our social world as well as the physical world.  The existence of a “self model” makes it easier for us to understand other selves in the world.  One of the more fascinating discoveries in recent years is that of mirror neurons, which are neurons which fire in the brain both when you perform a specific action, or experience a specific emotion, and also when another human performs the same action – that is, they create a virtual reality simulation of another person’s behaviour.  These neurons could (and there is still some debate about this) account for imitation of behaviour and empathy, which could be one of the triggers of culture and civilisation.

What does this mean for marketing and research?  In order to understand any specific behaviour, it is critical to understand to what extent the behaviour is conscious and unconscious.  In exploring a behaviour, we must ensure that we set the right context and perhaps design questions which can help respondents to “simulate” their response in the same way that they simulate the original behaviour.

The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger (2009)

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