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Get real: avatars help you discover yourself

Depressing as this may sound, there is no escaping yourself. Even in the virtual world, irrespective of the avatar you have created to rule or decimate worlds in your favourite MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), you are likely to remain disturbingly true to your real-life traits.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 19, 2011 22:42 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Depressing as this may sound, there is no escaping yourself. Even in the virtual world, irrespective of the avatar you have created to rule or decimate worlds in your favourite MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), you are likely to remain disturbingly true to your real-life traits.

Most people create virtual avatars depressingly close to their true personalities, found a US study that tracked 1,000 gamers who have a parallel life in the fantasy world of magic and monsters in the World of Warcraft. Think about it. Here you are presented with a chance to create a whole new you — a different gender, age, shape, even species. And what you are likely to do is create a supersized — even hobbits would not go for a midget avatars — mini-me.

What makes it so difficult to break free from who you are? Is it because the feeling of being in, and owning, your own body a fundamental human experience? To determine how humans perceive themselves, Dr Olaf Blanke, a neurologist with the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, combined techniques from cognitive science with those of virtual reality and brain imaging to create a data-driven approach to understanding self-consciousness.

What he did next could work as a script for Christopher Nolan’s next film. Blanke used virtual reality to “immerse” people into the body of an avatar after fitting each with an electrode-studded skullcap to monitor brain activity. Use of electrical brain signals meant subjects could stand, move their heads, and walk while the virtual-reality gear was active.

Next he exposed them to different digital, 3D environments through a head-mounted stereoscopic visor while playing with their minds, muddling the most fundamental aspects of consciousness, such as “Where am I” and “What is my body?” by physically touching the real-life people either in or out of sync with the avatar. They even swapped perspectives from first to third person and put their male subjects inside female avatars, all the while measuring the change in brain activity.

Blanke found marked changes in the response of the brain’s temporo-parietal and frontal regions, the parts of the brain responsible for integrating touch and vision into coherent perception. The interface between virtual-reality and touch and perception can be sued to treat chronic pain, psychiatric diseases and help in the neuro-rehabilitation of stroke and accident victims.

But, as the researchers point out, finding basic brain response to virtual reality is just the beginning. Next up for the researchers is to induce stronger illusions of the self by altering signals of balance and limb position (movement). Once the bounderies between the real and the virtual self is blurred, brain imaging can help document the mechanisms of self-consciousness and solve the mystery of the “I” once and for all.

At best, virtual-reality aids can help conditions such schizophrenia and agnosia (loss of ability to recognise objects, persons, sounds, shapes or smells) — best documented in the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by neurologist Oliver Sacks — can be treated by altering perception.

At worst, companies can use your avatar to gauge your real-life preferences and bombard you with pop-ups and emails about content and products that fit your type.

The World of Warcraft study has already made a start: extroverts are more likely to be influenced by user reviews and introverts by product specifications.

But then again, if demystifying behaviour means more selective cold-emails, such research will make life easier for all internet users.