Clinical psychologists use scenarios like this virtual library to study and treat social phobias.
Image courtesy of UCL Department of Computer Science
WHEN YOU GO INTO VIRTUAL REALITY — the kind of immersive virtual reality that we use — everything is life-size. When you see a virtual human, they can fully engage: making eye contact with you, smiling at you, making comments. At your highest level of consciousness, you know, of course, that nobody is there — you know it's fake. But at some level your brain doesn't register that. You don't make a distinction between this virtual place and a place that's real. And so you can't help but respond. If one of the characters smiles at you, you smile back; if one is angry with you, you get upset. Your body produces these reactions automatically.
Knowing this we decided to see if people exhibit paranoia in virtual reality the same way they do in real life. As people stroll around our virtual library, the characters sometimes look at them — sometimes smile, sometimes frown, but nothing else, more or less neutral behaviors. What people tell us afterward, however, is quite astounding. They say things like, "I heard them talking about me behind my back" and "Whenever I turned to look at them, they quickly turned away." These are things we know never happened, because we programmed the scenario. We completely control the environment. Yet people claim they hear characters whispering about them.
It raises extraordinarily interesting questions about what we perceive as our reality, and whether or not it's something that's just inside our heads. Because it often doesn't reflect something objective; it reflects our own expectations, our own past history, and our own presuppositions. — As told to Maywa Montenegro