February 1, 2023


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“The virtual world will never replace our analog world.”

Companies like Meta see the future of the internet in virtual reality. A neuroscientist explains why the virtual world will not replace ours and why VR veterans are treated.

For companies like Microsoft or the Meta group on Facebook, the metaverse is the next step in the evolution of the Internet. Both companies operate on their own virtual platforms and want social and professional interaction in these digital worlds.

Meta is far from his plans. Last year, the group opened the Horizon Worlds virtual reality platform to all users. With Mesh, Microsoft introduced an alternative to Meta Plans. The company wants to move conversations to virtual environments.

Even if the companies’ plans are concrete and there are first drafts for virtual worlds: Fears that everyday life will only happen in virtual reality are unfounded, says media psychology professor and best-selling author Maren Orner in an interview with T-online.

t-online: Companies want us to move into virtual worlds both privately and professionally. Is there a danger that we will be swept away in these digital worlds instead of dealing with reality?

Marine Orner: Of course there is a risk. But there are many shades of gray in between. I want to start with the positive aspects. We’ve always told each other stories and invented strange worlds in the process. Whether it’s heroic stories about campfires in the past or stories written with the invention of the printing press. This imagination is the thing that sets us apart from every other creature on the planet. Later, with the film and television media, other components were added that appeal to more senses and increase immersion. With virtual reality, meaningful experiences become even more profound.

Marien Werner is a neuroscientist and professor of media psychology at HMKW University of Media, Communication and Economics in Cologne. She studied cognition and neurosciences at McGill University in Montreal, among others, and received her Ph.D. from University College London. Her books Daily Apocalypse (Droemer 2019) and Get Out of Eternal Crisis (Droemer 2021) are SPIEGEL bestsellers.

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It can become dangerous if you neglect the individual aspects of my life. This is comparable to other addictive behaviors. That’s why it’s important that people close to potentially affected people talk to them and express their concern if they feel someone is forgetting their life.

Basically, role-playing games, that is, spending time in other worlds and other identities, bring with them many positive psychological aspects. Of course, this can also be demonstrated physically and therefore also in brain activity. Virtual reality or augmented reality experiences can also be a useful tool in therapies.

Are you saying that people with mental illness can be cured through virtual reality?

Among the subjects I teach at university are playing and digital learning. This exact approach is a topic there. There are already studies and preliminary projects showing that this technology can help deal with trauma. Findings with veterans, particularly in the United States, show positive effects on PTSD or depression. These techniques hold promise because they are healthy ways to control disease. Of course it is expensive to develop, but I think the cost is worth it.

What exactly happens to such treatments? How do I imagine it?

Imagine someone who was on a mission in Iraq and later suffers from PTSD. In virtual reality, the injured person during treatment moves in an appropriate form in an environment and in situations that are partly responsible for triggering the trauma. This sounds more realistic than a purely verbal description, for example, and no matter how close it is, it always remains a model. Due to the multiplicity of senses addressed, a closeness of the corresponding situations and experiences is created in Iraq, but it does not feel as if the person in question was there.

As in some computer games and first-person shooter games, the tested people move in a different world that is designed according to their experiences. In this way, individuals can gradually come to terms with the situations responsible for the traumatic flashbacks and, at best, resolve the traumatic experiences.

In addition to applications in the clinical and private environment: Microsoft develops a conferencing software for professional meetings. How is it classified? Can virtual reality be separated into something private and professional at all?

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Psychologically, a real encounter is always different from a virtual encounter. Two years into the pandemic, we all know that all too well. Even if there were the first 3D images and virtual friendships could be made on the platforms, the real touch is very important to us because we are social beings. The skin is our largest organ and touch plays a major role in emotional bonding and communication in general.

Example from one study: A waitress or waitress receives more tips if guests touch while serving. Gender and appearance do not matter. But touch can be very annoying and warn us. So the sense of touch is very important. Even if virtual experiences become more real, basic aspects of interpersonal relationships that affect mood, such as eye contact, are also missing. The problem with video conferencing is that it is never clear who is looking at whom.

Do you think that something interpersonal would be lost if we sat in virtual worlds with our colleagues?

Here we are again in grey. Everyone should consider whether it is right and important to travel halfway around the world for a half-hour conference – keynote: the climate crisis. So we should think carefully, both professionally and confidentially, do we need a personal contact at this point?

In some cases it is necessary. We cannot hug and touch each other. And I’m convinced we’ll never achieve a full simulation either. In other words: the virtual world will never replace our analog world. There are other positions among neuroscientists and proponents of strong artificial intelligence.

The truth is: with the status quo, that is, at the moment, a lot is lost in virtual meetings, both in the private and in the professional sphere. Sometimes it is only important for people to sit together in a room because this creates other things – often the result of groups is more than the sum of individuals.

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Let’s stick with it for a moment, as the senses are treated in virtual reality. Can you be more specific about whether, for example, brain waves can be used to show which areas are being stimulated?

This is beyond my current level of knowledge and I will also have to look into relevant studies. What I can say, though, is because my colleague has done studies on this: When we perceive multisensory stimuli, this leads to more intense processing in the brain. For example, if we see only the image of a rooster or only hear its sound, then the processing is less intense than if we perceive the image and sound.

Analog experiences play an important role in creating these connections between image and sound. In general, when we experience something ourselves, the effects in the brain are more intense. Why do we remember the things we built or made something ourselves? Because we not only found out how it works, but also how we felt, maybe how it smelled or tasted.

In other words, the more senses involved, the stronger our memory. Therefore, there are also terms such as holding or touching. When someone says he touches them, we have another element: the more emotional the thing is for us, the stronger his memory.

Because there is emotional attraction?

exactly. Of course, certain emotions can also occur in the virtual area – keywords: RPG. We can place ourselves in other worlds as in the aforementioned storytelling. But that’s all we have so far. There are now joysticks that also want to bring the sense of touch into virtual reality. And maybe at some point there will also be a chance to taste or smell something there. But so far, experiences in virtual reality affect us to a lesser degree in this sense, and therefore are less intense than experiences in real life.