One of the most significant challenges facing us in an increasingly technologized world is how to conceptualize the self. The self, a protean entity, is often perceived as a bundle of contradictions, seemingly constant and yet so fragile, familiar and yet elusive. However, as we push ourselves to the frontiers of reality, one must ask, how have technologies such as VR changed our perception of the self? Our selves are easily defined as the extent of our bodies. However, just as a tool, like a screwdriver, becomes an extended part of our bodies, so too can VR. In his book, Defying Reality: The Inside Story of the Virtual Reality Revolution, David M. Ewalt argues that VR is unique because it does not need us to ignore our senses, but to embrace them, and as a result of which, VR can function as a sort of externalized sensorium of the human body. Virtual reality has the potential to fundamentally change our perceptions and notions of the self, and consequently, the definition of what it means to be human. It isn’t just another beat in the accelerating tempo of technological progress, as Ewalt insists, it’s the start of a brand new song.
Technological extension of consciousness
It was Marshall McLuhan, the prominent Canadian communications theorist and educator, who first elucidated upon the role of technology as an extension of the self. In his seminal work, Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote that to behold, use, or perceive any extension of ourselves in a technological form is necessarily to embrace it. As we see ourselves translated more and more into the form of information, data as we may call it today, the boundaries of the self are becoming ever more fluid, leading to a technological extension of consciousness. For instance, our smartphones are more than just a phone. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone, points out Karina Vold. From our biometric data to intimate notes of self-reflection, smartphones have become an extension of our selves, perhaps paving the way for VR as well, as we adopt and integrate this technology more fully into our ways of learning and experiencing things.
The extended mind
The self is central to our beliefs, and in this important area of our life, we prefer not to be led by authority, dogma, or false prophets. However, as has been the case historically and now with the growing incidence of technology in our lives, the idea of the self is seen as essentially mutable, a product of the dialectical tensions between varying concepts of the self. In their pathbreaking work, ‘The Extended Mind’, Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers put forward a case for what they term as an active externalism, based on the active role that the environment plays in driving cognitive processes. Their thesis holds that a human being is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right:
All the components in the system play an active causal role, and they jointly govern behavior in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head.
Extended systems of the self
Put simply, the technologies that we use, whether it is in the form of a notebook, a smartphone, or even a VR headset, are instrumental in guiding our cognitive processes, thus breaking down the sanctity of the notion of the self as something restricted to the body. Clark and Chalmers state the example of a character called Otto, an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who keeps a notebook containing information that forms a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. Otto can be regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources. To accept this conclusion, we will have to expand the notion of the self as that which more often than not exceeds the boundaries of the bodies that we inhabit. Let’s change the scene a little, replace the notebook with a VR headset and substitute Otto for a young learner discovering the inner workings of the human body through the use of virtual reality. His cognition of the internal workings of the human body will be shaped through VR. Thus, perhaps like Otto, our young learner too can be seen as an extended system, the knowledge that he will carry in his mind having become a part of him through VR.
Transcending our selves
A 2018 research paper, ‘Virtually Being Einstein Results in an Improvement in Cognitive Task Performance and a Decrease in Age Bias’ (Banakou et al.) from the University of Barcelona illustrates that the type of virtual body which a user inhabits in a VR environment can become a determining factor in inducing perceptual, attitudinal, and behavioral changes in the experimental participants. The main purpose of the study was to investigate whether embodiment in a body that signified super-intelligence, that of Albert Einstein in this case, could lead to ‘measurable short-term changes in cognitive abilities’. In the study, 15 male participants were embodied in a virtual body that signified super-intelligence (Einstein) and 15 others in a (normal) virtual body, of an age similar to their own. The participants were administered three tests, the implicit association test (IAT) and the Tower of London Task (TOL) both before and after the experiment, and a 5-statement post-questionnaire.
Following from the results of the tests, the researchers were able to conclude that body representation did have a high degree of influence on brain plasticity. However, particularly illuminating is what Banakou et al. observed with regard to the ‘self’ concept, ‘Since the self is associated with attributes of the new transformed body, this allows the participant to access mental resources that are normally inaccessible due to their familiar modes of thinking about themselves. In our case, this generalization of body ownership to higher level capabilities is linked to enhanced performance in cognitive tasks’ (see Discussion). Place a young learner into the body of someone like Einstein, and they can train themselves to act and think at a heightened level. Therefore, as the results of this study indicate, by transcending the conventional notions and boundaries of our selves through technologies such as VR, we can open up new channels of learning for ourselves.
Bailenson, Jeremy. Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Banakou, Domna, Sameer Kishore and Mel Slater. ‘Virtually Being Einstein Results in an Improvement in Cognitive Task Performance and a Decrease in Age Bias’. Front. Psychol. 9:917, 2018.
Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. ‘The Extended Mind’. 1998.
Ewalt, David M. Defying Reality: The Inside Story of the Virtual Reality Revolution. Penguin, 2018.
Hallam, Richard S. Virtual Selves, Real Persons: A Dialogue Across Disciplines. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Routledge, 2001 (first edition: 1964).
Varela, Francisco J, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press, 1993.
Vold, Karina. ‘Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?’. Aeon, 2018.