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We Are Avatars: Our Online Psyches Are Leaking into Meatspace

And so the line in our brains between the real and the virtual blurs just a little bit more.
May 2, 2013, 6:00pm

As I begin writing this, I’m sitting at an Applebee’s in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood known informally as the Harlem of Brooklyn. The Knicks are in the NBA playoffs, playing Boston. The Knicks are losing. Applebee’s is packed, but no one is happy. And on an average night, the Bed-Stuy Applebee’s is a happy, happy place.

People get involved when they watch sports, almost as though they’re experiencing those things themselves. But what about when we’re observing something we know isn’t “real”—virtual reality, for instance?


Anyone who’s played any kind of video game knows we feel some vicarious involvement when we’re playing. But researchers at the University of Michigan and Penn State have taken that notion a step further, illustrating just how little our brain distinguishes between what we’re experiencing and what’s on the screen.

According to a study released today, our assumptions about what our avatars are “feeling” may actually alter our perception of that virtual world—similar to the way our bodily experiences can affect perception in the real world.

Most of us are familiar with real life examples of how bodily experiences like emotion and physical strain can affect our perception. Legal anecdotes and ample research show that eyewitness testimony is famously unreliable, in part because memory can be distorted by emotion and prejudice.

A study published in 2009 suggested that people view heights as being significantly greater when viewed from above (the riskier view) than from below (the safer view). Likewise, previous studies suggest that the incline of a hill, for example, appears steeper when we’re wearing a heavy backpack than when we aren’t—a phenomenon known as “embodied perception.”

An avatar, as Michigan State University’s Frank Biocca argued in 1997, is “the representational medium for the mind.” Taking a cue from the kinds of virtual reality training undertaken in the military and by athletes, researchers for the new study guessed that the links between what’s going on in these outward representations of our minds would be intimately linked with this phenomenon of embodied perception.


Turns out they were right, but only under certain conditions. For example, a user wearing a backpack in real life was no more likely to view a virtual hill as steeper than someone not wearing one. Users whose randomly-assigned avatars were wearing virtual backpacks, likewise, did not perceive virtual hills as significantly steeper than users whose randomly-assigned avatars weren’t wearing them.

When a user is allowed to customize an avatar, he or she is significantly more likely to think a virtual hill is steeper while wearing a virtual backpack.

But something happened when users were allowed to customize their own avatars: suddenly, they started demonstrating “embodied perception” in strictly virtual contexts. Specifically, when a user was allowed to customize an avatar, he or she was significantly more likely to think the virtual hill was steeper while wearing a virtual backpack.

Why does this happen? It could have something to do with so-called “mirror neurons”—recently-discovered neurons in our brain that react the same way to watching someone else experience something as they do when we experience those things ourselves. They’re why we smile when someone else smiles, why everyone at Applebee’s feels it when the Knicks miss a shot and run out of time.

But as noted by Dr. S. Shyam Sundar, one of the study’s co-authors and a communication professor at Penn State, mirror neurons would only explain so much. “The general phenomenon of vicarious experience and mimicking one's avatar could be attributed to mirror neurons,” he told me in an email. “I am not sure how the operation of mirror neurons would explain the specific distinction between customized and assigned avatars that we discovered in our study.”


As Sundar pointed out, the study wasn’t conducted on the neurological level. “The tendency of our study participants to ‘feel for’ the backpack carried by their customized avatars may indeed have a neurophysiological basis,” he noted. But such hypotheses at this point are strictly conjectural.

The early implications make good fodder for the imagination. As Sundar put it, we “feel for” our virtual selves even more than we thought: That could open up exciting new avenues for virtual therapeutic research, such as the United States military is already testing with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Might a customized avatar receiving a virtual massage, for example, make us somehow perceive our virtual lives—and, through repetition, our real lives—a little bit better. Might life’s challenges appear a bit more surmountable, just like that hill?

As Dr. Sundar put it, we “feel for” our virtual selves even more than we thought.

There’s a potentially darker side to this, too. As I’ve written about for Motherboard in the past, researchers have demonstrated that violent video games may have cumulative effects on a person’s level of aggression. The science regarding long-term effects of violent video games on people is inconclusive. And there’s no evidence that societies that love video games are any more violent than those that don’t. (The United States is the outlier here—we’re violent as hell, but lots of other countries love their video games as much or more than we do.)

Still, the evidence keeps mounting that our real and virtual selves go hand-in-glove. No one is suggesting censorship. But these kinds of findings at least bear consideration among parents in light of an independent analysis released Tuesday by The Guardian demonstrating that, of the top 50 video games sold worldwide in 2012, “more than half contain violent content labels, as assigned by an independent video game rating board based in the US.”

In addition, the report adds, “one-third have weapons that depict real-life firearms.” If we do, indeed, “feel for” our avatars on some level, what’s to stop, say, the anxiety that comes from a virtual enemy’s aggression from augmenting our anxiety in real life? Some social scientists since the 1930s, like Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, have argued that humans separate play from real life in ways that give us little cause for concern. But we’ve learned a lot since then. Some awareness, and a bit of discernment with regard to our media consumption, are reasonable demands to make of ourselves.

Nooscape (pronounced "no escape") is a column about today's techno-scape, and the idea that we are all merging into one massive, weirdo brain thanks to the internet—a phenomenon loosely known as the "noosphere."


Lead image by vernhart via photopin