We are not few who would save a coin or two by being able to be our own psychologist. In a very concrete sense, this is the topic of today’s entry — how Virtual Reality (VR) can allow us another perspective on ourselves, and how this may better our mental health. At Matrise, we have previously discussed how VR can benefit anxiety sufferers through virtual reality exposure therapy. We have also discussed how the medium can facilitate Mindfulness meditation. In this entry, however, we will discuss a VR application that lets you have a conversation with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Oh, but there’s a twist!
In 2015, Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlag and Mel Slater published a paper called “Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud — A virtual body ownership paradigm for self-counseling“. The paper discusses an application where you sit in a chair facing Dr. Sigmund Freud. Upon entering the virtual environment, you do not float in empty space as one often does in VR — rather, you notice you have a virtual body that responds to your movements. This may lead you to identify the virtual body as your own, a magical feature commonly referred to as Virtual Embodiment. We have written extensively on this subject in a previous entry — but put shortly, the effect, apart from being very interesting in itself, has many practical applications. Self-identification with a virtual body can be exploited to, for instance, reduce implicit racial bias and make offenders of domestic violence get better in noticing the fear in victims.
Self as Other
When you sit in your new virtual body, facing Sigmund Freud, you are asked to tell him about a problem. Sometime after you have emptied your heart, the virtual environment fades to black, before you once again are placed in a body, but this on the other side of the room. You are now Dr. Sigmund Freud and your patient, who looks remarkably like you, starts talking. You hear a recording of what you just said minutes ago, but you get to view your statement in a ‘new dress’: a 3D model of yourself is saying it, while you are virtually embodied elsewhere.
As humans, we know ourselves inside-out (or at least we believe we do). This may lead us to be more critical towards ourselves than others, as we compare our worst to the others best, our shame to their facade. We know all our terrible, dirty secrets, and talking to ourselves we do not have to adhere to any sort of social norms or even any general courtesy for that matter. This may lead to our inner voice becoming quite … crude. If we could focus on our own problems, in the form of the problems of others, it may be easier to be more loving towards ourselves, by utilizing the love we usually give to others. The technology can have remarkable results in affecting our selves.
In their paper abstract, Osimo et. al. write:
“…this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to affect cognitive changes”
Internal as External
This detachment from the habitual may be very beneficial, perhaps especially in terms of Self and Identity. We have discussed this previously in our entry called “Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as Immersive Virtual Reality“. Apart from the philosophical buildup of the entry, the article discusses an application that, to a certain extent, allows you to view your inner states (measured through pulse and breath), as your encompassing external reality. In our entry on the use of VR in floatation tanks, we also discuss the extreme potential of this — the possibility to be stimulated by only sensory deprivation, of which can be based on your inner phenomena, thus resulting in an experience where there is no separation between the inner and the outer, thus refuting the subject-object dualism that affects our everyday living experience.
Do you have any ideas to this? Feel free to comment below.
If we look to our glossary, we see Presence within Virtual Reality (VR) defined as the degree to which the subject feels present in the virtual world. What is interesting to note, is that this naturally has to be viewed relatively to the degree that the subject feels present in the physical world — as we usually receive information from both our physical and our virtual environments.
There can thus be two separated approaches to designing for presence in virtual reality environments: one is to provide sensory stimulus of the virtual environment, and the other is to block sensory stimulus from the physical environment. Both approaches work towards the same goal of immersion — the encapsulation of the user in the VE. Slater and Wilbur (1997) recognise this in their definition of Immersion, which is closely related to the notion of Presence. They define immersion in terms of four qualities the system can afford, the first one of which is called inclusiveness. Inclusiveness they define as the extent to which physical reality is shut out.
Obviously, the principle of adding and removing sensory experience go hand in hand; by equipping a Head-Mounted Display you are blocking the physical impressions and replacing them with virtual impressions, all the while shielding for incoming light from the surroundings. Blocking light, however, is not the only way to deprive the senses of information from the physical environment. In this entry, we will discuss how we can maximize the inclusiveness of the immersion by achieving sensory deprivation in floatation tanks. Floating in Virtual Reality!
Floatation chambers, or sensory deprivation tanks — are pools of water with copious amounts of epsom salt (≈600kg). The tanks are sealed for any incoming light and sound, and the air- and water temperature is equal to that of your body. When you lie down, you will feel how the salt makes you float even though the pool is very shallow. As you lie there, you notice how the ripples you created when lying down start to slowly subside as you sink down into weightlessness. After a while, because of the air- and water temperatures are the same as that of your body, you can no longer pinpoint where the water ends and the air around you begins. In fact, it gets hard to distinguish anything from anything else, including your body from the air and water. There is really nothing that is easy to grasp as isolated, save perhaps your breath. And as the minutes go, with total physical relaxation and lack of much sensory impression at all, things start to change.
The most significant, explicit change one may notice in the tank is that after a while your bodily self-consciousness is not what it used to be. Your mental model of where your body is in relation to the world around you starts to become blurred. Normally reinforced by tactile stimuli of air and water (of varying temperatures), and visual and auditive stimuli from the environment, your body model is now lacking information on which to create it. Your sense of spaciousness has also changed, that is the feeling of your position as defined relatively to say, the walls, mountains and sky has disappeared. You now really experience nothing around you, but neither any edges to this lack of information in your surroundings. You may get the feeling of floating in empty space — but where are you in all of this? What, in this stream of conscious experience is matter and what is mind?
Inner vs Outer
In our entry — ‘Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality‘ — we discussed the potential of using VR for meditation purposes in experimental ways. In the introduction to the entry, we discussed our feeling of Self as a duality of Inner and Outer, of which our everyday experiences usually comprise. We discussed how technology may have the power to transform our consciousness away from this traditional subject-object hierarchy and into a non-dual one, where the Inner is seen as the Outer, and the Outer as Inner. In this entry we are building further on these ideas. Similarly to visualising inner states in VR through biometrics, using VR in floatation tanks might provide illusory experiences where the conscious experience is significantly altered.
One other entry relevant to our experiments with VR in floatation tanks should be mentioned before we go on: the entry on Virtual Embodiment. In the entry, we discuss the great potential of VR to hack our consciousness; why it is possible, and what it can be used for. The research is highly relevant for floatation in VR, as both floatation tanks and VR alter our self-model, as both alter the sensory impressions necessary to maintain it.
Research on Virtual Embodiment in Floatation Tanks
Matrise partnered up with Bergen Flyt, a local company offering floatation therapy in the heart of Bergen city. We used a Samsung Gear VR with a Samsung S8 phone. We did not use a HTC Vive (Pro) as it would be more risky exposing the cable to water. Also, no room tracking or even much head orientation was needed, and in terms of resolution the HMD is quite high in ppi. We chose to first try out some abstract visualisations through the application “Fractal Lounge”, that shows varying psychedelic visuals and floating through space.
“After I had showered, I put on the GEAR VR headset, started the application, and slowly entered the floatation pool. I held my hands towards the wall, as I did not see anything else than the visuals in the headset. When I was inside, I closed the glass door, and slowly lowered myself into the water — back first. It took a few seconds before I dared to lower my head all the way down, but very soon I was totally relaxed. As expected, the electronics in the display was kept well above water, due to the intense amount of salt in the water …”
“The visualisation pulsated, floated, drifted along — and often totally changed in colours and shapes. It took probably about ten minutes before my feeling of body totally vanished, to the degree that it was a larger gap between wanting to move the body and actually being able to move it than usual. I felt like perceiving a great drama and scene, and I got engaged in the forms and ways of the visualisations, sometimes quite invested in it, as it felt close and reality-defining for me. After about twenty minutes in, I felt as if I was drifting along in space at high speed, because of the steady movement of stars away from me. At the same time, there was no sound, which made the quick travel feel peaceful and smooth. As with normal floating, about every ten minutes there is a sort of reality-check moment where you remember you are in the tank and contemplate how weird it is. This also happened in VR, and was … equally as weird”
Reflections and Future Work
My first experiment with floatation in VR lasted for about 45 minutes. Sometimes, unfortunately, the VR headset glided slightly off my face, and I had to reposition it with my wet, salty fingers. After this happened about three times, I had to leave the tank in order to save the equipment.
My first experience of floating in virtual reality was very promising. The largest surprise was the feeling of movement through space at high speed. The largest frustration was the lack of any sort of interaction with ones surroundings at all, except the possibility to open and close one’s eyes. A great experiment would be to use eye tracking technology as a way of navigation in the vast, abstract psychedelic spaces. If one travelled towards where one saw, one could even be interactive while lying still in the floatation tank. This could also possibly have curious effects on which parts (perhaps the eyes), we identify with our selves. Perhaps the placement of our self could be altered by changing the agency for transportation.
Matrise will continue the cooperation with Bergen Flyt, and both try and develop different applications. Our plan is to measure the feeling of presence and self-identification and consciousness while in the tank.
Mel Slater and Sylvia Wilbur. 1997. A Framework for Immersive Virtual 1140Environments (FIVE): Speculations on the Role of Presence in Virtual 1141Environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 6, 6 1142(12 1997), 603–616. https://doi.org/10.1162/pres.1922.214.171.1243
The most praised ability of Virtual Reality is its capability to immerse the user in a Virtual Environment — to the degree that the subject feels present in it. The magic is to be fooled by the system so that one feels present where one actually does not physically reside. This effect can, however, turn even more magical. A deeper step into the effects of technological immersion is found in the concept of Virtual Embodiment. If a subject is embodied virtually, not only is the virtual environment accepted as such; the subject also identifies with a virtual body or avatar inside the virtual environment. This differs from realizing which character you control in a game — within Virtual Embodiment it is the same processes that make you identify with your real body that makes you identify with a virtual one. This is a key point, as it is why research into virtual embodiment is important.
Hacking and Experimenting with Consciousness
What is fascinating about both of these possibilities of illusion, then — is how, and that, they are possible at all. Knowledge on how to achieve such immersion is obviously relevant for all VR developers, but the knowledge that can be obtained by researching these phenomena goes far beyond knowing how to apply it in VR technology. By creating experiments in VR, we can generate, and investigate, phenomenas of the mind under various experimental conditions. Exploring Virtual Embodiment, for instance, can enable us with a better understanding of our self-consciousness and the relationship between body and mind. Because of this wider span, research on Virtual Embodiment attracts neuroscience researchers, psychologists, information scientists and philosopher’s alike.
The Rubber Hand Illusion
The Rubber Hand Illusion (RHI) is an excellent example of the kind of ‘brain hacks’ that can be achieved by sensory manipulation. The illusion, as illustrated below, is a perfectly simple experiment that does not even require the use of VR technology to perform. The RHI was introduced by Ehrson, Spence & Passingham (2004) and has been an ingenious way to illustrate how we identify with our bodies. More importantly for this entry, the results of the experiment has inspired further research on Virtual Embodiment.
In the RHI, the hand of the subject is replaced by a rubber hand, while the normal hand is blocked from sight by a separating wall. When the subject is sitting as such, a researcher will stroke each hand, both the rubber and the physical hand, simultaneously. Now, the question is what happens when experiencing the sensory impression of stroking, all the while seeing a corresponding stroke on the rubber hand?
Put very simply, the brain does a ‘reasonable guess’ that this hand is indeed the correct physical hand attached to your body. You feel that the rubber hand is yours, with nerve-endings and all — and you couple your physical feelings to the vision of the hand. This means that in your subjective experience, the rubber hand is the hand that has the sensation. Ehrson et. al write that their results suggested that “multisensory integration in the premotor cortex provides a mechanism for bodily self-attribution”. When our brains receive sensory information from two differing sensory inputs (sight+feel), these are coupled: the brain is coupling the stroking-sensation with imagery of a nearby-hand being stroked, and this is enough for the brain to attribute its self with the hand, to acknowledge it as its own.
This simple experiment share a lot of principles with the concept of Virtual Embodiment, and has inspired research in the field that we will present in this entry.
Virtual Body Illusion
In a later experiment by Lenggenhager et.al (2007), not only the hands of the subjects — but their whole bodies were replaced with virtual representations. Moreover, in the experiment they present, the bodies are seen from behind. In effect, they were simulating out-of-body experiences, with very interesting results.
The experiment was conducted as such: the subjects wore a Head-Mounted Display which projected imagery from a camera located behind the subjects. As such, the subjects could see a representation of their bodies “live”, but from behind. Of course, this is deviating slightly from how we normally experience life. Although the subjects saw their body responding and performing actions in real time as under normal conditions — there is a logical dissonance due to the mismatch between the location of the subjects’ eyes in the virtual environment, and what these eyes see. Effectively, the user is seeing inside a pair of “portal” binoculars (HMD), which display the light from, if not another dimension, then at least a few feet away. And this will be a part of the point.
What is interesting about this experiment is not necessarily simply that the users feel present where they do not reside physically, but how the distance is only a few feet off. The users feel present right outside of their bodies. The situation is similar, the body and the environment is there, but everything is a bit off. What is interesting to investigate then, is how the body adapts to this. Will it accept that it now controls its body from a third person perspective, similarly to how Stratton’s subjects got used to seeing the world upside down?
What they studied was basically whether this change of perspective had an impact on where the users felt embodied. To investigate this, the researchers stroked the subjects as they did in the Rubber Hand Illusion, except at their backs — so that it was perceivable by them. The question is then where this physical feeling will be attributed to — how will the phenomena of the subjective experience present themselves to the subjects?
First of all, to be clear on this — the sensory data of being stroked will initially be provided by the nerves in the physical shoulder of the user. The problem of the brain, however, is that the shoulder is out of sight — blocked by the Head-Mounted Display. There is, however, the visual impression of a shoulder on a person standing in front — being scratched in exactly the same way. Although the nerve-endings definitely feel the stroking, the problem is that where this feeling will be placed in our subjective experience is not the responsibility of the shoulder, but rather the brain. And, as the placement of the physical feeling in the bodily self-consciousness is largely dependent on vision for coordinates, what will happen? How will the brain fix this sensory discord?
In this beautifully written article by The New Yorker, its author Rothman describes one of the co-authors of the research paper, Thomas Metzinger’s, own experience undergoing the experimental conditions:
“Metzinger could feel the stroking, but the body to which it was happening seemed to be situated in front of him. He felt a strange sensation, as though he were drifting in space, or being stretched between the two bodies. He wanted to jump entirely into the body before him, but couldn’t. He seemed marooned outside of himself. It wasn’t quite an out-of-body experience, but it was proof that, using computer technology, the self-model could easily be manipulated. A new area of research had been created: virtual embodiment.”
Another curious potential effect of Virtual Embodiment, is the possibility of phantom sensory impressions as well. Handling virtual objects while being embodied, for instance, may convince your body to expect pain or touch — and so this is, somehow, actively generated. Because of this, VR may be a way to study how phantom pain is created, and further how it can be alleviated. For instance, several studies show how VR can embody a subject missing a leg in a body with two legs, similarly to traditional mirror therapy treatment, which is effective in reducing phantom pain. Again — what may be most interesting here is the possibility of systematically creating the phenomena and studying it afterwards. For instance, as Metzinger is quoted on in The New Yorker’s article, it may be supposed that phantom pain is created by a body model not corresponding to the physical reality. This will be the case for phantom pain in VR: it is not based on the physical reality, you are only relating to a virtual reality instead. Similarly, those those with real phantom pain may also be relating to a certain kind of “virtual reality”, but rather one in the format of their skewed narratives — maintained by their minds instead of a computer.
That the narrative, worldview and consciousness that our brain’s experience and generate is often not the best match with reality is not something new. As for Matrise, these concepts reminds us of the conclusion from our three-series entry towards a metaphysical standpoint on VR, in which we discussed VR as rather examplifying of our abstracting tendencies of mind. These entries can be read at Matrise, and were called: 1) On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency, 2) Heidegger’s Virtual Reality, and 3) The Mind as Medium.
Virtual Embodiment for Social Good
Now that we have discussed the concept of Virtual Embodiment, it may be natural to discuss what this knowledge can be used for. As discussed already, generating experiments in VR that hacks our self models, may provide useful knowledge on the structure of our self-consciousness. Apart from this general knowledge, some may also have practical utilisation in applied VR for specific scenarios.
A very exciting paper that describes work utilizing virtual embodiment, is one by Banakou, Hanumanthu and Slater. In the project, they embodied White people in Black bodies, and found that this significantly reduced their implicit racial bias! The article can be found and read in its entirety here (abstract available for all).
Another interesting project by Seinfeld et. al, is one in which male offenders of domestic violence became embodied in the role of a female victim in a virtual scenario. At first in the experiment, the male subject is familiarized with his new, female, virtual body and the new virtual environment. When the body ownership illusion, or virtual embodiment, has been achieved, a virtual male enters the room and becomes verbally abusive. All this time, the subject can see his own female body reflected in a mirror, with all his actions corresponding to his. After a while, the virtual male starts to physically throw around things and start to appear violent. Eventually it escalates and he gets closer into what feels like the subjects personal space, and appear threatening.
“Our results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognize fear in female faces compared to controls, with a bias towards classifying fearful faces as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, offenders improved their ability to recognize fearful female faces and reduced their bias towards recognizing fearful faces as happy”
N.B: This entry lies at the centre of Matrise’s interests, and we are planning on writing several entries on this topic further in philosophical directions. Have any ideas or want to contribute? Please contact us.
1. Ehrsson, H. H., Spence, C., & Passingham, R. E. (2004). That’s my hand! Activity in premotor cortex reflects feeling of ownership of a limb. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1097011
2. Lenggenhager, B., Tadi, T., Metzinger, T., & Blanke, O. (2007). Video ergo sum: Manipulating bodily self-consciousness. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1143439
3. Stratton, G. M. (1896). Some preliminary experiments on vision. PsychologicaI Review 3. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0072918
4. Ambron, E., Miller, A., Kuchenbecker, K. J., Buxbaum, L. J., & Coslett, H. B. (2018). Immersive low-cost virtual reality treatment for phantom limb pain: Evidence from two cases. Frontiers in Neurology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2018.00067
5. Banakou, D., Hanumanthu, P. D., & Slater, M. (2016). Virtual Embodiment of White People in a Black Virtual Body Leads to a Sustained Reduction in Their Implicit Racial Bias. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00601
6. Seinfeld, S., Arroyo-Palacios, J., Iruretagoyena, G., Hortensius, R., Zapata, L. E., Borland, D., … Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2018). Offenders become the victim in virtual reality: impact of changing perspective in domestic violence. Scientific Reports. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-19987-7