The end of Reality 1.0
The human brain is very adaptable as has been proven many times; in one particular study1people were given goggles that inverted all images coming into the eyes, up becoming down, down becoming up. After a week or so, participants’ brains are so attuned to this inversion, that it becomes normal, and they can undertake all tasks as usual. When the experiment ends, it also takes a few days for the brain to re-adjust. Indeed, it is worth mentioning that without goggles, all images are projected onto the retina upside down – our brain is already inverting this image, to enable us to see the world the way we do – this happens from birth.
Another example of the brain being adaptable, this time regarding touch, is the “Rubber Hand” illusion. Italian Researchers undertook a study2based on this sometime party trick. For the study, volunteers sat with their forearms resting on a table and their right hand hidden inside a box. A lifelike rubber hand was then placed in front of them and lined up with their right shoulder. A cloth covered the stump of the hand, but the fingers remained visible. To induce the illusion, one of the researchers stroked the middle finger of the participant’s real hand while simultaneously stroking the same finger on the rubber hand. The illusion occurs when the real and fake hands are stroked at the same time and speed for a minute or two. In combining the visual information with the touch sensations, the brain mistakenly concludes that the rubber hand must be part of the person’s body. When questioned about the feeling, the volunteers said it seemed that their own hand had vanished, and the fake hand had become their own.
So – what has this got to do with technology? Well, consider the field of Virtual Reality, which whilst it has been around for a long time, is still emergent, in terms of its delivery. Imagine being able to completely immerse yourself in a world, both from a visual perspective and a tactile perspective, until over a period of 7 to 10 days, this world became your reality. The adaptability of the brain, convincing you that this digital place is actually the real world. Well, this is now available, with VR Helmets and immersive suits providing haptic and heat sensations.
Now imagine that in this reality you could do anything you desired with impunity, whether that was lying on a beach, attending a 24-hour orgy, playing football for Manchester United or being a famous celebrity. I’m sure there are worse desires than these which will be catered for by those wishing to cash in on people wanting to escape actual reality. Reality 1.0
My fear is, that like taking drugs, these experiences will undoubtedly release dopamine and endorphins in the brain and will become both physically and psychologically addictive.
Whilst there are also many potential therapeutic uses for Virtual Reality (such as for PTSD, long term pain sufferers and palliative care), uncontrolled use could, like drugs, be damaging for society. It is easy to see how a child who is bullied at school, or an adult who is unhappy, depressed or on the fringes of society, could escape into a world that feels every bit as real as Reality 1.0 – and be #livingtheirbestlife as the Instagrammers would say – but at what cost.
Questions need to be asked around how we approach VR. Do we treat it as a digital narcotic, and control its usage? Who will police its content and how do we control the organisations that will be peddling these experiences to people?
Well – now is the time to be asking these questions, before everyone has access to such devices and whilst Reality 1.0 still has the balance of power.
1 The myth of upright vision. A psychophysical and functional imaging study of adaptation to inverting spectacles –http://wexler.free.fr/library/files/linden%20(1999)%20the%20myth%20of%20upright%20vision.%20a%20psychophysical%20and%20functional%20imaging%20study%20of%20adaptation%20to%20inverting%20spectacles.pdf
2 Decreased motor cortex excitability mirrors own hand disembodiment during the rubber hand illusion –https://elifesciences.org/articles/14972