Category Archives: Identity and perception of self

Stay human while being virtual

A nicely done video parable that tells us to be more human when using the web. Applies not only to email and their other examples, but also to virtual worlds, don’t you think?


I am every age

I lifted this directly from I wanted a separate copy because there never seems to be an end to the dubious assumptions people choose to make about having a kid avatar.

The quote is attributed to Madeleine L’Engle

“Mashed” graphics from Frank King’s Gasoline Alley

If I were more original or engaged, I might not have used Gasoline Alley, but maybe Calvin and Hobbes or Toy Story characters, who are more familiar to me. Perhaps now that this is in the back of my mind, I will redo this once I find the right C&H panels or TS stills…

Mirror Neurons, Mirror Worlds has become one of my favorite channels for those times like riding on the train where you can tune out the world while watching an iPod with headphones.

Below is a TED presentation by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. He describes a function of the brain using “mirror neurons”, that are a subset of the neurons that let us sense and control our body. While other neurons are doing the sensing or controling – like picking up an apple – the mirror neurons are also firing.

I bet you are wondering how this ties with Virtual Worlds. I think it does, and in a big way.  Note that I used my category tag “Identity and perception of self”. This is because I am fascinated not only with virtual worlds, but how and why the VW seem to be enabled by weaving with how our minds create identity and work with how we perceive ourselves.

So back to our brains: When our motor command neurons fire so we can control our body, the doctor says our mirror neurons are also firing. This next thing is the discovery he’s made: when we see someone else doing something, like picking up an apple, the same mirror neurons are firing in our brain as if we were picking up the apple. His theory is this is a characteristic of our brain allowed man to learn from others so well.

I think this is also why we can have so much meaning connecting through an avatar into a 3D virtual world. This brain wiring of mirror neurons can be co-opted so we can use them to better connect with another body that we can mirror in our mind.

Think how we function in VW when you watch the video.

And don’t just think of how we create and reinforce a projection of our bodies in 3D space, think about how some users go a bit further… Have you ever been talking to someone unfamiliar with Second Life, and they ask, “I have heard people have some sort of cyber sex there… how could that possibly work?”?

I have wondered about that as well. I think if there is a way understand this, we can look to mirror neurons. Perhaps you will agree when you watch the video.


I saw this today and thought this was kind of funny, especially since I this morning was reading in-world the message sent to the Milk N Kookies group about one of the topics for their 5 September 2009 show – SL avatar bots that you can rent as your personal friends or pets. I don’t remember all the details, but basically the deal is you can go to a vendor to rent an avatar bot of some sort that can be interacted and conversed with. The bots are probably using some form of artificial intelligence (AI) chat. Do a web search on “AI chat” and you will find any number of them for which you can enter text and engage in a conversation. These have been around for years.

Who knows, perhaps soon we will be resorting to Turing or Captcha tests for avatars we meet in the metaverse.

I am not saying there is something wrong with artificial companions. We all probably got a lot of fun, companionship, and comfort from our stuffed or other toys when we were kids. I am constantly amazed how I feel toward the sculptie bot cat that Pais has at his home. Before I cat-proofed the place by building a fence around the main area, the cat would wander into the sea or under a floor and would get stuck there for days. I would either be gone for busy and forget that he wasn’t trotting up to see me or bumping and annoying my visitors, then I would go looking for him. Normally I would find him caught in the water or something, struggling against the slope, a wall or other prim, or the border of my parcel, and I would feel a pang of sadness for the pour creature, even though I know he’s just a couple prims and a script. Some may argue a real cat is nothing but a biological machine, but thankfully most people treat them with a little kindness, too.

Pais shares a quiet moment with Bubble the Cat

How are we wired to live through our avatars?


If Pais goes for a bike ride, does his human counterpart benefit from seeing that exercise? Check out a little blurb from the Sciam blog:

“According to research at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab watching a “digital you” strongly influences the “real you.”
Principal author Jesse Fox had 25 subjects watch a digital clone (or avatar) of themselves running on a treadmill for five minutes.
She found that those who watched their avatar break a sweat spent more time exercising within a 24-hour period (an hour more in fact), than the control subjects who watched another person jogging, or those who watched their own avatar doing nothing. That’s more than double the Surgeon General’s minimum daily recommendation for exercise.
Persuasion studies have shown that we are most influenced by those similar to us, in looks, values, education. But here we are being persuaded by the ultimate model: our own self.”
This is really a tip of the issue for me. I am curious to know the mechanisms of our mind, identity, and perceptions that give virtual worlds like Second Life the “juice” that make it so compelling. The experiment they describe are showing the kinds of tangible links to our real world selves to things we experience in a virtual world. I hope to learn more and report what I find here.
If anyone else is interested, here is one of my challenges: For those of us that have experience SL, we know it can be a powerful experience. I have tried to describe in other blogs how emotion and other factors come to play a larger role than, at lease for myself, it seems such an artificial world should be able to invoke.  However, I have yet to see anyone explain what this experience in a way that could clearly, quickly, and concisely describe this phenomenon so that someone who has not yet tried SL would understand it.
If you had thirty seconds or two paragraphs to get this experience across to someone, how would you describe it?  Not even anything I have read from the Lindens has yet to crystalize this package of psyche, psych and tech.
As the title of this blog implies, I think there are parts of us that are “wired” to be able to project ourselves into an avatar. In the blurb, they are talking about an avatar that looks like ourselves, but I think we can project into almost anything we relate to in some way. The best non-SL example I can give is how I used to play as a child with toy animals. I would become intimate with the world I imagined them living in by seeing that world through their eyes. I remember taking my toy animals with me on car trips, and hold them up to the window so they could “see”, and then think about what the world might look like to them.  It seems to me our brains have mechanisms that allow us to perform this kind of play, as well as relate to actors in plays and movies, and other parts of our minds go for the ride – our emotions and our sense of place.
The more we understand how we are wired for this, the more we can better appreciate the “juice” of our virtual play place, and in turn the many dimensions of our selves.

Culture is our Killer App

I must again nod to Dusan for his relentless blogs that seem to custom-gleen things about SL, virtual worlds, and the metaverse that interest me.  And even though I blew past his first reference of a book by Tom Boellstorff’s ‘Coming of Age in Second Life’, the when I saw the second one I followed links that lead me to the first chapter online.

Tom is doing what I sometimes I think I do as an amatuer – to be immersed and living in SL and to be making anthropological observations about what it means to be human and viritually human. I am stealing time from RL as I write (which is to say I didn’t have time to read and contemplate all of that chapter), but as I took a look at the sample chapter, a paragraph gave me a whammy:

“The idea of “virtually human” appearing in this book’s subtitle can be interpreted in two ways, indexing two lines of analysis I develop throughout. First, although some insightful research has claimed that online culture heralds the arrival of the “posthuman,” I show that Second Life culture is profoundly human. It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our “real” lives have been “virtual” all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human “nature” to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being. Culture is our “killer app”: we are virtually human.”

I can get behind this way of putting the phenomenon of SL in perspective. My challenge to all of us as we pioneer this new landscape of being is that we take the opportunity to evolve our human-ness and perfect our culture.

Wow. The mind is an interesting thing. When I pondered my writing “human-ness” I remembered one of my favorite poems, I realized it could be a Pais-mantra:

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:

your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness

— electrons deify one razorblade

into a mountainrange; lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish

returns on its unself.

A world of made

is not a world of born — pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this

fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell

of a good universe next door; let’s go

– e.e. cummings

The Committee of Me

I was over reading Dusan’s blog and a paper linked in its comments that sent me into a little mental spin. Normally I’d just comment at his blog, but quite frankly, I didn’t read all of the stuff there yet and I wanted to hatch a bit of this thought I was formulating about myself. I was just at a conference about newer web-enabling technology of how we deal with information to make it more computable. One thing that struck me there was how many people there seemed to have no qualms about laying out their identities on the web. One guy gave the URL/URI for his RDF FOAF and said “this is me”. I didn’t grok it then and after trying to ponder it for nearly a week, I still don’t get it, especially because he said, “this is not my web page, this is ME”.

Maybe I am paranoid or shy, but I don’t see how a network of all my life needs to be web-enabled for all to surf.

As Pais, I have a blog. No other part of me has a blog, especially one using my real name. When I saw “Virtual worlds don’t exist”, even without reading more than a few pages I remembered how earlier in the day I was backing myself out of FaceBook and LinkedIn because I was getting friend requests, pokes, and other associations that may work well enough with fragments of my self but I didn’t want laid out for all the sniffers, yokels, background checkers, identity thieves, and who knows what else to see.

Then I thought of Pais’ blog, where that fragment of me can talk and share in his own circle, and not have to muddy or be muddied by my other selves. Then I wondered if I should create alts for my work self, my family self, my college buddies self, my various hobbies selves, and so forth. All of these only need be connected to my legal identity when they need be.

These are twisted times for identity. We have an administration that wiretapped the entire country’s phone and email. We have marketers that are profiling our buying tastes and habits. We have people that assume our identities to take our money and property. Why do I want to connect up all the dots? Instead, perhaps I need to diversify my life, my mind, and my identity.

I met a person in SL with dissociative identity disorder. Well, actually I met first one of their personalities in one alt that introduced me to another personality who had another alt. The alts are different sex and age. After meeting “them” and getting to know them both, as well as talking to one of them about their multiple personalities and their RL(s), I pondered about how much I also have partitions of self and identity, although not as dramatic as my friend.

I have come to like being Pais, like an author that publishes some of their stories under a pseudonym to allow them freedom from the restrictions of the rest of their work, splitting off a chunk of identity for a reality partition makes more sense now than ever before to me.