Virtual Reality is a useful concept for thinking about actual reality. Alongside perennial questions such as the hard problem of consciousness (connecting mind to body), or what came before or is outside of the universe, it is difficult to pin down without finding some analogy that ‘will do’ for the time being. But we can use the technology, and idea of ‘virtual’ reality to create reality, explore it’s uses, it’s boundaries, and it’s credibility. And by inference make some assumptions about what constitutes reality, what it may in itself be useful for. In short, how we can engineer reality for our own purposes. Particularly with respect to stimulating and directing behaviours to purposeful and profitable ends!
We live in a particularly innovative period of history where the digital age is upon us, the revolution has started, and we really are tuning in across the board, turning on to the benefits of connectivity and dropping out of physical reality at an alarming rate. So it is even more pertinent that we re-establish connection with nature, with the planet. For our own health and mental wellbeing sakes, as well of course for the sake of the ecosystem that threatens to be demolished by our own insatiable appetite for consumption and exploitation of natural resources. I sit firmly somewhere in the hinterland between early adopter and luddite. Which I appreciate sounds nearly meaningless. I suppose what I mean is I have an interest in how technology mediates our immersion in the world, and how our senses, and cognitive capacities also mediate our perception of that world. Yet I pine for an earlier golden age where technology did not milk the human race’s supply of attentional resources dry. And yes, no golden age ever really existed in a sociological sense. It is perchance myth. And all progress, technological and otherwise is good, yes?? So I like to take the stance that technological evolution, as somewhat inevitable thus is a positive thing to be embraced, and directed, lest it insidiously coral the masses into a herd like state of being.
There are limitations of course to the technology of virtual reality, but as with Moore’s law of exponential return, it is improving and will improve yet further as it becomes more ubiquitous. But this is helpful with respect to the potential to understand how this mediating experience affects the perceptions and behaviours of the user. And with that a window into how the brain constructs the rules of it’s reality in order to generate meaningful actions resulting. The proof of the pudding is in the acting. As Jeremy Bailenson (2011) introduces in his (co-authored) book Infinite Reality’, the term virtual reality means so much more than just the donning of a set of weird goggles a la in an ‘80s David Cronenberg movie. In fact with respect to the earlier comment about mediation between the observer and the world via the senses and cognitive processes, it is helpful to think of ‘virtual’ as referring an interpretation or ‘representation’ of something else (‘the world’).
In fact much current scientific debate revolves around whether ‘consensus reality’ in fact means anything objective at all – the world as a simulation in some advance computer programme (Donald Hoffman talks a lot on this subject with great authority - http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/). In this sense of ‘virtual’ it helps to also acknowledge that the simplest form of ‘virtual reality’ resides in one’s own mind when thinking about stuff, imagining things that aren’t directly there in front of us, dreaming at night. Telling a story around a campfire elicits an empathic response with the audience,: a compelling narrative evokes emotional engagement, leading to various behaviours stimulated from a lack of any ‘real’ stimulus. (Making someone involuntarily shiver or gasp in response to a sinister tale, or having them wracked with mirth at a funny anecdote.) The point is, we are wired for suspension of belief.
It is this very capacity to engage with, empathise with and react to, an idea, a concept, an evoked experience lodged in the mind of the beholder, that is the essence of how we embrace the ‘unreal’. Reality becomes something of a meaningless ideal in this sense, for it is the behavioural response evoked in a situation by an idea that is impressed upon the mind which drives action and motivation going forward. And this helps then understand how it is that actually it is the brain that ‘creates’ it’s reality in this sense. Everything is mediated effectively. The brain sits inside its cranial casing, a lightless, Platonic cave. The eyes are not windows to the outside world. Rather they feed optical fibrous lines of communication conveying electrochemical signals to the inner-computer. This in turn organises those signals to be transmitted via network ‘cables’ to autonomous ‘committees’ that ascribe some significance to what becomes ‘information’ that can be utilised in a grander context of meaning.
The capacity to empathise with a concept or narrative espoused through a mediating technology such as VR lends itself to some potentially useful, even ground-breaking, applications. This is particularly so with respect to engendering greater empathy with the natural order of things and the wider environment. Whilst people will pay sincere lip-service to pro-environmental ideals and believe they are acting accordingly, there is a notable dissonance between word and deed. But this speaks to an issue with human motivation, and again rests with the brain’s proclivity to make it’s own life easy. For acting takes energy, and a great deal of that energy is required to overcome inertia. And anyway, ‘promising’ to do some pro-environmental action is as good as having done it, right? but without actually having to expend further energy to carry through…?
The brain lays down it’s neural grooves as an efficient operating system that makes habitual patterns of behaviour the default. Like the stream that finds its own way downhill, it will seek the path of least resistance. To create a new groove means deviating the flow of the old. But emotional engagement can provide it’s own impetus. For emotional responses can shake up the homeostasis of the organism, releasing hormones and neurochemicals such as cortisol or dopmamine, stressing the system and rewarding it in a cocktail of re-balancing nourishment.
Virtual reality can provide an experience that plays on the brain’s capacity to engage with an imagined world, to smooth out it’s edges and to become a complicit actor in it’s narrative. And in this respect, the brain is happy to incorporate the elements of this narrative into it’s own script of experience. The system that processes the sensory signals, organises this into meaningful information, finds purpose in laying down the grooves that make it such an efficient organ. The neurochemicals consolidate the resulting network (dopaminergic reward), and the system will look to use this revised network to prompt its decisions and actions.
The point here is that using mediating technological experiences as can be devised with VR, can have utility in changing people’s behaviours and attitudes without the need for effort on their part. Because the user is presented with this ‘reality’ they only have to let go and allow their brains to do the work that is naturally enjoys. So an experience may involve transporting virtually into a far off place where they become part of that environment, perhaps engaging in an activity that has direct repurcussions on the natural surroundings. This experience will be imprinted in the cortices as being something that they themselves had agency over. Their actions in the virtual world will be motorically imprinted as ‘real’. Their memories will be encoded as having take place ‘for real’, and this will in future be drawn on for reference when making decisions in the ‘actual’ world. If that action experienced brought home a sense of consequence, of immediate cause and effect, of responsibility for this, then future action-decisions will draw on the weight of that responsibility to motivate perhaps more positive behaviours. Studies are emerging that draw on this facet of the usefulness of VR and ‘persuasive technologies’ to help change behaviours, particularly with respect to sustainability issues.
VR can of course be used as a marketing tool, particularly to engage consumer interests in tourism and natural recreation possibilities. But more of interest to me is how analogously this concept of meditated experience can engender positive changes in attitude, motivation and ultimately behaviour. And how the learnings from ‘virtual reality’ transfer to how we approach thinking about (with the aid of the imagination) how we engage with the natural world directly (albeit enhanced by certain ways of thinking about it). I’ll talk elsewhere about how certain places can become elevated in their emotional and perceptual impact via the medium of photography and cinematography, with reference to virtual reality as well.
In summary, reality is in itself a mediated experience (via our senses into our brain, informed by the processes therein). What is important in consolidating this ‘consensus’ of reality is the empathic response engendered by this mediated process. Consequently, the experience that results and is immersed within can stimulate further behaviour, motivation and perspective change. And this can in principle be achieved with little ‘mental effort’ using technology such as virtual reality, for the brain does not like having to invest energy in disrupting the ‘grooves’ it has laid down based on past experience. The challenge is to promote direct experience with the natural world such that behaviours are ecologically-sustaining, and the connection with the environment is empathically-inspiring! A paper which talks more about how virtual reality and persuasive communications more generally can inspire greater connection of self with nature is referenced below (Ahn et al., 2016).
Footnote from Jäncke et al. (2009):
"A “negative connectivity” between right-sided DLPFC activation and brain areas was found in the dorsal visual stream, extra-striate areas, the SPL and the IPL, and in the PMC (Figure 3). Based on this finding, we indicate that the right-sided DLPFC down-regulates the activation in the dorsal visual processing stream. Considering the specific role of the dorsal stream in egocentric processing of the visual environment, it can be proposed that the right DLPFC is recruited as part of a strategy for regulating the experience of presence by constraining the egocentric processing of the roller coaster stimulus display. It can also be proposed that by increasing the activation in the dorsal visual stream during strong presence experience (with diminished activation in the right-sided DLPFC), the brain attentively prepares actions in the virtual environment as if the brain actually responds to real-life situations. It is known that the dorsal visual stream and the connected parieto-frontal areas are strongly involved in action and movement control. Hence, the stronger the participants are involved in the virtual scene, the stronger they plan to act attentively in the virtual environment."
Ahn, S.J.,Bostick, J, Ogle, E., Nowak, K.L., . McGillicuddy, K.T., and Bailenson, J.N. (2016). Experiencing Nature: Embodying Animals in Immersive Virtual Environments Increases Inclusion of Nature in Self and Involvement with Nature. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 21, Issue 6, 1 November 2016, Pages 399–419, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12173
Blascovich, Jim, and Jeremy Bailenson (2011), Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution , Hammersmith: HarperCollins ebooks.
Jäncke, L., Cheetham, M. and Baumgartner, T. (2009). Virtual reality and the role of the prefrontal cortex in adults and children. Frontiers in Neuroscience, Volume 3 | Issue 1 |
JJ Gibson’s theory of affordances has been a mainstay influence in my thinking for many many years (Gibson, 1979). This theory refers to a dynamic, coupled systems approach to behaviour in context with the environment in which the organism is embedded. This is also referred to as an ‘ecological psychology’ approach. Gibson developed ideas based on understanding properties of optic flow in relation to an animal’s movement and the visual information informing motion and perspective from the surrounding scene. This flow of visual information, as he propounded, lends itself to providing stimulus to motivate possibilities for action within the environment. The animal can decide which way to go, what behaviour to select (run, slow, turn, jump) based on this dynamic visual stimulus impinging on the optic nerves.
A later development in the cognitive psychology of vision and action professed dual visual pathways in the brain (Goodale and Milner, 1992, building on Ungerleider and Mishkin, 1982) that accommodate different streams of visual information processing. One (‘ventral’ or occipito-temporal) for discerning ‘what’ an object or stimulus is – qualities that describe object features – and one (‘dorsal’ or occipito-parietal) that discerns relative positioning of the object in space (describing object location and spatial coordinates). Simply speaking, it could be said that the ‘dorsal’ stream subserves the capacity to coordinate motor actions of the organism with respect to the scene and its constituent objects (though of course both pathways have their key functions in visual perception leading to motor behaviour).
Loosely tying these strands of theoretical background together, ‘affordance’, as Gibson put it, describes a capacity to act upon the world by virtue of the object and environmental scene features that allow action to be made upon them. So to reiterate, this is a dynamically coupled systematic approach. Or if you like, behavioural action is an emergent property of this coupled system. That is, I, myself as the agent in this environment (my office), have the capacity to act relative to my environment, as a function of this interrelationship with the objects within that environment and the spatial elements of this scene. So it is well within my action potential to rise from my chair (affording sitting currently), navigate across the room from behind my desk, and stroll out (or dash, hop, twirl) into the corridor and seek out the nearest toilet facility.
But none of that is intrinsically derived either from myself operating in isolation as an independent and isolated individual being, nor the environment in and of itself (the toilet does not beckon me against my volition – my homeostasis has a key part to play in that). And so to the point with relevance to environments, motivated action, and potential to seek adventure. I wish to use this forum to elaborate upon certain scientific principles and theoretical (and applied) frameworks that inform my perspective on adventure psychology. This includes brain functions, and cognitive psychological models concerning the mechanisms by which we process information from the environment and translate that into actions. This ultimately drives our capacity to perform efficiently and optimally.
The concept of affordances, couched in an understanding of how the brain organises the sensory information flooding it at every turn, helps to define which elements of the environment preferentially determine what ‘I’ want to do next. Be that to sit still, close my eyes and try to avoid engaging with the outside world. Or else to use the environment and sensory stimulation to arouse my interests, ignite my enthusiasm, and disrupt my homeostasis to the point I career out into the world (to climb the mountain, dive in the sea, slide down the white slope) in an attempt to restore equilibrium to that system. Dynamic equilibrium in fact. Hereafter, the ‘natural’ state of being may well be to remain active and engaged, and making full use of my vestibular and proprioceptive capacities, balancing on a figurative tight rope straddling two pinnacles.
This mode of action could well grant access to an epic vista and an emotional thrill that I would not be able to see from any other vantage in a more sedentary (homeostatic) state. In due course I will elaborate further on different aspects of the scientific influences I incorporate into a grander perspective of ‘CognitvExploration’.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Goodale MA, Milner AD (1992). "Separate visual pathways for perception and action". Trends Neurosci. 15 (1): 20–5. doi:10.1016/0166-2236(92)90344-8. PMID 1374953.
Ungerleider, L.G. & Mishkin, M. (1982). Two cortical visual systems. In D.J. Ingle, M.A. Goodale & R.J.W.
"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." - Dave Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey
I like to reference the visual arts, and in particular the medium of cinema, when talking about facets of cognition and perception that inform our view of the world. What better source springs to mind to relate to when discussing how reality is constructed by the brain, than examples of directorial vision that fabricate intoxicating worlds that captivate and inspire audiences. With this in mind I would like to offer a perspective on the influences of two of my personal favourite directors: Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick.
These two giants of contemporary cinema exhibit certain tropes that hint at a genius for constructing worlds on celluloid which leak (or even flood as of blood torrenting from an elevator) out into the actual world and permeate the consciousness of the viewer. Not to mention the cultural milieu in which we live…
Given my interests in how we view and construct our reality, how our perceptual apparatus, influenced by our cognitive capabilities creates and immerses us in the world around us, these auteurs stand out particularly. Their filmic motifs have had significant influence on how I think and view things.
First Scott. Perhaps it’s a common geographical ancestry (he’s from South Shields), but I feel an affinity towards Sir Ridley. I admire his stylistic approach to visual form (I hold up my hands – I am very much into visual aesthetic, possibly to the exclusion of substance), as well as his plain speaking (gruff?) exterior. His sublime vision has strongly influenced cinema, particularly in the science fiction and future-dystopian genre (Blade Runner of course).
Certainly in the earlier pictures (some of the later Hollywood offerings I feel Ridley has succumbed to CGI and to formulaic ways of doing things) there was a distinctive and affecting visual style. Blade Runner, Legend, The Duellists, Alien all stood out with a painterly form. His style exploited the pure enhanced power of the medium to manifest the richness of imagination, the afterglow as of a psychedelic trip, emphasising colours and sharpness of vision, enriching the external perceptual world beyond any mundaneity of actual content in scene. He showed that film could represent everyday reality (as well as realising far more fantastical worlds) as truly beautiful, with the camera a mode of enriching experience. This as opposed to merely facsimilising, representing or simply documenting what we ‘see’ as a matter of course. This resonates with me because I strive always to understand how we can optimise our perceptual faculties to interpret, project and render reality in as striking and aesthetic a way as possible. In Kantian terms we can bring richness to the world ‘out there’ by our imagination interacting with our sensory input. It is a two way process.
Kubrick, meanwhile, brings the intellect to full force in his composition of what is laid bare on screen. There is a meticulous, cognitive element to the whole perceived aesthetic. (Possibly to the detriment of emotional substance.) He was noted for his obsessive detail, his dictatorial style in crafting even the minutiae of every frame of every scene. Much has been written about the exacting process actors were put through with scores of takes for even the 'simplest' of scenes (eg. Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, or Shelley Duvall in The Shining). Conspiracy theories abound with respect to symbolism 'hidden' clearly in mundane background detail (see the film, Room 237, which is born of a fan's obsessive deconstruction of the 'meaning' of The Shining).
But this is where the mystique proliferates. For even the most ‘mundane’ of scenes might encompass a wealth of information, of totally controlled composition where nothing is left to chance. All elements of background as well as foreground were carefully placed, coordinated, calibrated. For he was seeking to control, influence, manipulate, stimulate the unconscious as much as focus in on the principal scene elements. All was suggestive. All was there to enable endless supposition after the fact about the meaning and significance of what had been viewed. The consummate magician, he went to great ends to set up a simple scene, in order to not necessarily misdirect as to embellish perceptions. He strove to completely dominate the perceptual experience and to masterfully immerse the viewer in HIS world, in order to effectively replace the viewer’s perspective with one he has engineered.
That speaks to me at many levels. Most notably though, in terms of how one may go about crafting complete and transformational experiences for self or others, to instigate a carefully created perspective in order to allow one to fully embrace that and see differently. Essentially to understand and master one’s own view of the world by delving into the cognitive machinery underlying, to tinker, to optimise, to have ‘fullest’ control as possible over the perception generated as a consequence. 2001: A Space Odyssey still holds up for its meticulousness in detail, it's profound themes of cognitive and technological evolution. But generally because it was a bloody good rendition of what space flight may well be like without the bells and whistles (and sound in a vacuum), and the representation of worlds in our solar system even before we 'got' there (being released a full year ahead of actual Apollo 11 touch down in the lunar surface for instance).
When all is said and done, we can take lessons from the likes of these artists among others and seek to engineer the narrative and experience of the world that suits our own individual temperament. We can realise how much craft and skill is involved in just seeing, and being in the world, and we can seek to direct our own quality of that experience. By learning from others. This comes down to composition of scene as much as goal and vision underlying what we want to achieve from that scene. We can reorganise, we can have purpose to change around elements of the scene to have unconscious impact, to embellish the overall effect. This can help change the ‘habit’ of perception.
Our eyes rove about the environment, sampling information in staccato-like fashion, driven by top-down attention (expectation, intention) as much as elements in the scene itself. Our very beliefs and expectations will inform what is processed, and how that information is woven into the internal model of the outside world. This doesn't have to be done 'blindly'. With a directorial vision of our own, we can begin to craft the detail, to select the information relevant to that vision. We can render the scene through the lens we choose to view through. To light the set and consequently edit the footage. The story is our's to tell. Unless of course one is happy to sit back, switch off the lights, grab the popcorn, and revel in the stories that someone else wants to tell. Each to their own...
That’s my personal perspective anyway – and it’s no coincidence that I seek the intellectually driven/visual stylistic or cognitively-domineering examples I have chosen rather than more emotionally driven examples. That is not to say there is not a purposefully crafted emotional component to the films of these directors, but rather that I seek inspiration from the visual aesthetic and stylistical composition of the movies they have made. Perhaps in future I will give a further take on the how we may craft our own emotionally driven narrative, with reference to appropriate cinematic examples of style and mise-en-scene.
As a postscript, one of the latter films in Kubrick's canon that failed to come to the screen whilst he was alive was in fact taken up by a collaborator of his and given a take unique to that particular director's style. And presumably a very different, and more emotional tenor as is the signature of that filmaker. I am referring of course to one Steven Spielberg in his rendition of AI: Artificial Intelligence. One can only speculate how much different this would have been in Kubrick's hands, perhaps building on themes given genesis to in 2001. Notably, where machine intelligence may evolve in the sphere of inter-human social interaction, from cold and inhuman beginnings to something more calculating and meta human perhaps (here I speculate and extrapolate wildly!). Instead the resultant movie is very Spielbergian, focusing on family, childhood wonder and in my own humble opinion overly saccharine and hard to swallow (I came very close to walking out of this film as it really exasperated me - and I am normally a huge fan of Spielberg...).
And how is this relevant to adventure you might ask? I digress into areas that inform my take on visual perception and styles of cognition. Yet this is tied to my view of the world both aesthetically and in terms of the action-possibilities to explore further and construct my own model of what is 'out there'. Adventure for me is about painting the world in it's richest and most stimulating form. The natural canvas is just that - nature. And wilderness represents this canvas of nature at it's grandest scale. As the director of my own experience I can seek to construct my artwork within the studio, through illusion and technical proficiency to create a world within constraints. Or, budgetary limitations aside, I can seek to make the movie out on location, showcasing the natural environment in all it's glory, and indeed weaving it into the narrative as a crucial character in itself. This requires vision, imagination, and impetus to get out there and boldly tackle the challenge of shooting 'in the wild'. But the dividends will be prominent onscreen! This leads into further posts on how our visual perceptual system encompasses processing streams for dealing with action-relevant information as key to building representations of the world out there. And of course a further digression on the vagaries of film making (and photography) on location in the inspirational wilds of the UK!
"Viddy well little brother, Viddy well" - Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange
" I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this..." - Mark Watney, The Martian
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.