Go out

Go out and play, they say. You spend too much time with a computer. You are ruining your eyes.

Kids just sit only on the internet, and they have no clue what the real world is.

Or, for those who grew up before the Facebook and YouTube: You’ve been watching TV too much. You’ve been reading too many books, too many graphic novels.

Now go outside and get some real life.

We’ve heard that so many times. All of us. And not just from our parents. Hundreds of years ago, when books became widely available, there had to appear some parents were undoubtedly complaining about the amount of time their kids spent on reading. And less than half a century, it was the TV that was stealing the precious reality time and replacing it with worthless daydreaming. It was the PlayStation twenty years ago, it is the YouTube and mobile gaming today, and we will blame the Virtual Reality tomorrow.

Apparently, it is right for you to be outside, and to experience the “real” life. On the other side, to dream, read, watch, listen - to be inside, not that much. While no one would complain about the benefits of the day spent on the beach (or snowy peaks in my case), the time spent reading, or generally consuming the media, often receives negative marking. We are told that “real world” experiences are good, and those others are bad or have much less value. I must admit that reading has lost some of the negative connotations recently, but it remains in this “bad” zone.

What’s so wrong with such a categorization?

Let’s talk about what is real for a start. Neuroscience claims (According to Anil Seth) that we’re all hallucinating all the time; and once we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality.” Our brain continuously creates the model of the outside world, and justifies it with the inputs from our sensory system, including the signals coming from our interoception and vestibular system. Interestingly, our brain doesn’t stop doing it even when we sleep and still keeps delivering the “hallucination” we perceive as real once we wake up. Another take on the same theory is a popular implementation of the Bayesian Brain hypothesis, according to which the brain maintains predictive models of the external causes of sensory inputs and updates these models according to some version of Bayes’ theorem.

So, the reality is an interpretation of the outside world, made in our brain. It is our best guess, and we need our body with all of its sensors and arms to help our mind with building such “model.” All of the sensory inputs and interactions contribute to it. With that said, in the example, why reading, which is an essentially synesthetic process that often combines the two sense of hearing and sight, should be excluded from valid forms of an experience? What makes this experience less real? One may say it is not real, as it is an experience based on the content which is a result of someone else’s mind’s hallucination of the real world. Does it mean that someone else’s “personal hallucinations” of the outside world are less valuable? Maybe. But they are still part of our external world, and we perceive them with our senses, and that qualifies them as an experience.

David Chalmers (Philosopher and Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University.) says “Virtual reality is not a second-class reality” and I join him in this statement. He describes the role of the avatars as virtual bodies, playing the same role in digital reality as our bodies in “real” reality. As the body is the source of much value in life, virtual one does the same in digital reality.

We often say we live the life of, that we become for that moment, a book hero or game character. We perceive their fictional reality through their fictional bodies. The question is how it even may happen? We can’t observe their reality with our senses as we are not physically there! The answer is pretty simple, yet surprising. We can perceive their world when we embody the character's body. Although their feelings exist only in description, or they are visualized in case of movie or game, we can still map them into our mind and make them contribute to our reality model, to our hallucination.

As it turns out, we need a body capable of sensory inputs and interactions to support our brain in creating that model of the outside world. Then, this body represents an interface with the outside world. Now, let's think about the embodiment - as we can naturally map external senses or motion systems and use them as if they would be part or even replacement of our current body. Such an outer body doesn’t have to be necessary physical, as it turns out. We routinely collect the data from the fictional or digital bodies, and they do contribute to our reality perception.

It doesn’t matter where we get our experiences. We are just a brain in a jar, and body is an interface with the outside world.

There is something extraordinary here: We don’t need to drill in the brain with stainless probes to add extra senses. We can simply map them to existing ones. David Eagleman has experimented with echolocation sensors assigned to the muscles around the spine of a blind person. He used a vest that translated sonar pulses into vibrations and which allowed a patient to read this input as his sight. It required some time to learn this skill, but patients reported that they perceive those little massages of their back as SIGHT.

I’ve mentioned earlier that sensory and interactions don’t have to be physical: We are able to map even digital bodies and their interactions and sensory systems and interact this way with the digital realities. The same applies to fictional bodies, where the senses and interactions are “just” described or visualized.

Next time, when you will be sent out to experience the real world, you can argue that you already do. That you always do.

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