I found this to be really interesting:
New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008
Neuroscientists have presented evidence that they can create a “body swapping” illusion by using VR helmets, showing that the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own. Based on virtual-reality experiments, the technique could have a profound effect on a range of therapeutic techniques. In these studies, researchers create avatars that mimic a person’s every movement. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.
The researchers say that those who seek help for relationship problems often begin to moderate their behavior only after they have worked to see the encounters in their daily life from others’ point of view, and this is especially true for adolescents, who are so self-involved, and also for people who come in with anger problems and are more interested in changing everyone else in their life than themselves.
People’s brains are amazingly plastic in how they create a sense of “self”. It has been shown many times that if some object moves in synchrony with your intent, you begin to experience it as being part of your body, even to the extent of unconsciously cringing if someone pokes it. But this virtual reality “body-swapping” takes it to another level. It reminds me of Ramona, the female avatar Ray Kurzweil created (see kurzweilai.net), that moved and sang synchronized with his body movements.
When he was using the system, did he feel like a woman? Are today’s video game players experiencing that effect? And what is it doing for us? One could imagine that, depending on the kind of avatar and what it does, it could make us more empathic, or more belligerent, more self-confident, or more disoriented and isolated.