What can VR teach us about who we are?

Updated: 2 days ago

Virtual reality (VR) has already been used in healthcare to help treat phobias, detect dementia early, treat chronic pain, and ameliorate mental distress, including "bipolar disorder". And that’s just the short list. The most powerful lesson to be learned from VR, however, is not about what we can do. It’s about who or what we are.


At the heart of the success of VR is one bold fact: Each of us has the ability to transfer our sense of identity beyond our biological bodies. When stated so directly, it sounds like science-fiction. But this is something each of us does all the time.


Each of us has the ability to transfer our sense of identity beyond our biological bodies


In a dream, our sense of identity shifts out of this biological body and is transferred to and restricted within the body of the dream character. The same happens when we are engrossed in a movie: our sense of identity is transferred to the character in the movie—so much so that when the character is afraid, we feel afraid, and when the character is joyful, we feel joyful. In each case—whether that of immersive VR, a dream, or a movie—our sense of identity is transferred beyond the biological body. There is also the experience of sleep to consider, in which the sense of being a localized identity of any kind disappears altogether.


In other words, identity is fickle, malleable, transferable, and temporal. This is a powerful statement, because our sense of identity is the heart of everything we do. It is the heart of who we believe we are, what our capabilities are, and what our purpose is. This becomes obvious when we enter a dream and find ourselves to be much older or younger than the sleeping biological body, or when we pop on a VR headset and transform into a magical creature that can navigate inter-dimensional space-time portals. As identity goes, so goes our experience, ability, and purpose.


The single greatest lesson VR can teach us, then, isn’t about what a person can do, but rather why we believe we are one person when in fact identity varies and transfers across vast ranges of experience. In a nut shell, VR is pop culture’s version of experimental metaphysics.


The single greatest lesson VR can teach us, then, isn’t about what a person can do, but rather why we believe we are one person


Let’s assemble in one place the evidence each of us has collected from our waking, dreaming, sleeping, movie-watching, and immersive VR experiences:

  • Identity is transferable beyond the biological body.

  • When identity is transferred, we gain new perspectives and abilities.

  • The birth and death of one assumed identity does not imply the birth or death of the organism in total.

  • The sense of being a localized identity disappears every night when we sleep.


From this evidence, we can formulate a theory: What we are is not primarily a particular character, but rather something that can appear and identify as a particular character. Just as the VR software appears as a particular character within the VR world, just as the dreaming mind appears as a particular character within the dream world, and just as the light of a movie projector appears as a particular character within the movie scene, perhaps we as individuals are appearances and identifications of a subtler substance, whether that substance is information, mind, or something else. Given the evidence, it’s more of a stretch to assume we are only a single, particular identity.


If in fact we are something that can appear, localize, and identify as a particular character, then we should be able to play with our sense of identity even without the aid of devices. In fact, we already do this when we dream, and while awake and daydreaming.


Now lets’s change the rules a little. What if we consciously shift our identity beyond the body and not shift it into another character? In other words, the identity would include the body, but would not be localized to or restricted by it. This may be similar to the expansiveness many have reported experiencing while using psychedelics and during extreme physical exertion. But is it possible to experience that without psychedelics, physical duress, and VR headsets?


Aside from the evidence discussed above that we’ve all collected, support for this possibility is wide-ranging. Eastern wisdom traditions have said for millennia that what we experience as our localized mind and body is a reflection of a broader, subtler mind. Quantum physics has shows us over the last hundred years that matter-composing particles we believed to be discrete, separate, individuated things are actually aspects of a field that extend throughout space. And the Western philosophy of objective idealism posits that the individual mind is an aspect of the mind-at-large.


VR now offers us a unique and grand opportunity to combine science, philosophy, spirituality, and most importantly, direct lived experience to see ourselves and the world around us more clearly and fully.


VR now offers us a unique and grand opportunity to combine science, philosophy, spirituality, and most importantly, direct lived experience to see ourselves and the world around us more clearly and fully.


As a result of redefining human thus, we may indeed unlock new “VR” abilities in this very world—much as it happens in a VR world—including the ability to heal in ways considered impossible today. Identity and ability go hand-in-hand after all.

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© 2020 by Anoop Kumar