Alterations of our consciousness, avatars and virtual worlds – From manipulating our mind to changing our phenomenal self-perception

For years, scientists as well as technology firmshave proclaimed the imminent emergence of a technology that promises to have a massive impact on our daily lives: virtual reality (VR). Companies like Facebook and Sony spend billions of dollars to play with a new kind of reality – and this is to be taken literally, as video games still represent the main domain of VR technologies’applications.If we have faith in the protagonists’ claims this time, the computer are now fast enough and virtual reality is now (finally) “just around the corner towards entering our daily lives”.

Yet what seriously interesting can we get out of (video) gaming? Some frustrated parents of video game-addicted children may possibly rejoice uponhearing the answer: In fact, the research and development of virtual reality provides an “interesting tool to explore the human mind”, the neuro-philosopher Thomas Metzinger states. To better understand why this is so, we need some more detailed insights into modern neuroscience. Today’s neuroscientists are more and more able to accuratelymeasure which regions of the brain are responsible for specific emotions, feelings, reactions, and perceptions, and how we take in the numerous stimuli of the inner and outer world, process them and translate them into concrete reactions.And it turns out that all of these operations are not fixed and predetermined, but they can (and often relatively easily) be manipulated, among others through the construction of virtual realities. In other words, our capabilities and the functions of unified conscious experiencespossess only limited stability. This finding leads to radicallynew responses to the question of what constitutes our consciousness and experience itself, and how these can possibly be altered.

When we feel something, think about something or do something, we are aware that we are the ones who have these feelings, follow these thoughts or engage in these activities. So we knowingly have subjective mental states such as perceptions, emotions, memories and thoughts and we can recognize these as such. Such conscious states occur particularly when we compare complex information on the environment and our own bodies with memories of past experiences and use this for flexible behavioral planning. They create in us the phenomenon of experience, that is, a representation of theoutside world associated with asubjective internal perspective and connected to a perception of a “Me”, a mental world in the brain, in which we perceive, feel, think and plan. Philosophers refer to this as a “phenomenal self”. That this experience along with a “Me-feeling” is not self-evident, show numerous examples of neurological diseases and exceptional mental states such as perceptions under the influence of drugs and hallucinogens. More and more neuroscientists adopt the view that the “I” is nothing but a mental construction and as such difficult for us to be recognized, which is produced by our brain to selectively and effectively represent and process information. A per se existing, irreducible “self” does not exist. What does exist is the experienced feeling of “Me-ness” and the ever-changing content of our consciousness of ourselves.

How is it then that we continue to hold on to our coreconviction of one “Ego”, that we are still and always one and the same who experiences all of this? It is indeed a master achievement of our brain that despite this incessant and omnipresent transience and impermanence we nevertheless have the impression of always being the same “Me”, which lives and experiences in this respective perception of a current “Now”, i.e. in a unity of time.

Generally, our brain produces what philosophers call a “model of the world”. With this, our brain creates furthermore a model of ourselves. The content of such “self-model” is the conscious self. This phenomenal (directly experienced) self-model isthus an internal representation (a model), which the brain creates at the level of a conscious experience of itself (ourselves) in a particular environment. It constructs an internal image of our person as a whole, including our mental, psychological and social characteristics, which help us to process information as efficiently as possible, to make appropriate predictions, and to interact in a social setting. This is what finally makes us say “I am” or “I have”. At the same time our self-model makes us naive realists: It leads us to believe that the world and we ourselves are in reality and essence just as the model in our brain represents it. For we do not perceive ourselves as the result of such a modeling and representation process. By allowing social cognition and thus the development of cooperative behavior, only self-models allow the formation of social and societal structuresso well known to us. Self-models thus allow an evolutionary view on their origins, by recognizing themdue to their social power as specifically advantageous in the “cognitive arms race” acrossspecies. In other words, phenomenal self-models gave our ancestors great advantages in the battle for survival and reproduction.

Meanwhile, scientist are able toempirically and experimentally examine phenomenal self-models, as the Indian neuropsychologist Vilayanur Ramachandran showed in a number of as simple as astonishing experimentsseveral years ago. Using certain combinations of mirrors he managed to trigger illusion of phantom limbs in subjects. And newer experiments show even more comprehensively howvirtual out-of-body experiences can be created by manipulating our phenomenal self-model to integrate purely illusory objects intoitself, which are then directly experienced parts of it. The most famous and at the same time simplest example of such an experiment is the so-called “rubber hand illusion” Here the self-model of a subject is made to integrate a hand made of rubber into itself. The subject thus identifiesit as the her own hand.

Neuro researchers refer to these experiencesgenerallyas “virtual embodiments”. With proper setupssubjects separate themselves mentally in their self-image (self-model) from their biological bodies or parts thereof and identify themselves with an artificial body image or corresponding parts. The term for such an association with anartificial body is surely familiar to most of us from Hollywood movies: “Avatar”. We might regard these as forms of out of body experiences, which people can also spontaneously have (and for which we see evidence in much of the mystical and religious literature). Meanwhile, scientists are able to measure the corresponding neural activities associated with these associations. With the help of such virtual embodiments in appropriate avatars, possibly in conjunction with appropriate brain-computer interfaces,the human phenomenal self-model can in various ways be coupled to artificial senses and activities. Such manipulations of our self-model make numerous fascinating applications feasible in the future.

The phenomenal self-image is thus relatively easilyshaken up, as mental diseases, brain injuries, phantom limb pains, hallucinogenic drugs, or fairly simple deceptions of our self-model as the rubber hand illusionshow. People can in their experience be put into the body of a child or that of a six-armed creature, their visual perspective can be separated from their body, or our own heartbeat can be made visible. Therebynot only becomes the identification with a situation and people in the virtual world larger over time, such experiences also changes the perception of oneself in the real world. Virtual realities can therefore have a huge impact on ourselves and our phenomenal self-model, thus on the experience of our own self. One could even go so far as to say that even our entire internal model of ourselves as a whole is of virtual nature, in the sense that it is only activated when it is needed.

Using virtual embodiments in appropriate avatars, possiblysupported by appropriate brain-computer interfaces will in the future allow the human self-model to be more and more altered and thus possibly directed. Such alterations of our self-perception could soon make numerous fascinating applicationspossible, but also terrifying manipulations. “The possibilities of soon being able to move in virtual environments almost like in the real world, comes with yet unimaginable consequences for our psyche and self-perception,” says Thomas Metzinger and lists possible associated risks, such as psychological manipulation, hallucinations, personality changes, or the influencing the subconscious, on which our society has paid far too little attentionso far. As our society responds hostile to the use of mind-altering substances, we will need to test corresponding reaction patterns also regarding virtual realities. “Which brain states shall be legal in the future?”, asks Metzinger concretely. Up to now scenarios as in such well-known films “The Matrix “or “The 13th Floor”(both from 1999) are pure fictions. That could change soon.

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