interviewed by Sharon Bard [Abridged]
We live in at least two worlds.
Besides the daily
scenario we perceive as reality, dreams bring us into another realm
while often quite extraordinary, does not seem unusual while we are
Through simulations induced by technology, we encounter additional
– at the movies, on television, on spaceship rides at Disneyland. And
we can add to all of these the newly emerging computer-generated world
of "virtual reality"...
Still in its infancy, computer-generated virtual
offers choices of interacting in an instantly created and rapidly
While motion pictures and television impact our
world by providing additional auditory and visual input,
applications are able to reduce or eliminate extraneous auditory and
sensations, heightening the sense of realness. Proponents of
reality suggest that with proper guidance, this new venture may be able
to train us to sense our world differently, to ultimately know that how
we normally perceive is arbitrary, that our ordinary perception is
no more or less real than any other reality we or anyone else may
at any time.
Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research,
a major developer of virtual reality, suggests that in walking through
life every day, the border between what’s really out there and our
experience of it is very fuzzy. However, in the clothing of virtual
something striking happens: For the first time there’s a sharp, clear
between the outside – what’s generated by the system – and the
Exciting possibilities abound in considering practical
applications in virtual reality. Architects, designers and
could enter a simulated building and make changes in walls, windows,
and ceilings before engaging in costly physical construction.
might be able to travel through DNA helixes and rearrange genetic
while surgeons could enter a CAT scan of their patient’s brain to
a tumor. However it is in the area of consciousness studies that
we approached Institute Fellow Charles Tart, for his views on how this
experience might open up new vistas in understanding human perception,
interaction, and transcendence. –
have said that virtual reality is going to make a significant change in
we view consciousness.
Charles Tart: Yes,
because I think computer-generated virtual reality is a tool that
what most people grasp intuitively: that we already
live in a
virtual reality, that we don’t just
things as they are. The clearest example of this is to think about
being in a dream at night. You’re in a world, there may be people in
objects, actions, things happen, it seems to take place over time, a
unfolds. And during your time in it, you accept it as being real. Even
if it’s a lucid dream, the dream world around you still appears real.
that’s a very clear demonstration that your own mind has all the
necessary to completely generate a perceptual world, a virtual reality.
Your dream reality is literally a virtual reality.
The most important
once you realize that your mind can generate a virtual reality all of
own, is to drop the naive assumption we have about our ordinary state
consciousness – or even some altered states – that we simply and
perceive the truth. Rather we need to recognize that we’re always
we’re always constructing, we’re always selecting, we’re always
what we take to be real, which of course has enormous consequences
for how we live our lives and how we act in the world that finds us. So
that if, for example, I’m walking down the street and I feel threatened
by a funny-looking person who is walking on the other side of the
parallel to me, what I might tend to naively do is assume that is
a threatening person and I’d better do something like shoot first
being shot, which has consequences.
Once you begin to
that you’re always constructing your own world, in selective ways to
extent, you can begin to wonder: "Is it simply a matter of the person
the street who is threatening, or am I bringing something to this?" If
on reflection it turns out that I tend to see threatening people
but almost nothing ever happens from these so-called threatening
then I can appropriately question whether in my construction of the
I accurately portray what’s out there, or whether I’m projecting my own
is created or changed externally, as in a computer-generated
reality, how is it then internalized so that a person who is
this model is able to make that transition?
is not hard at all. When people first put on the goggles in a
virtual reality set-up, they know it is artificial. If they work on it,
they can maintain the attitude that this is artificial, that they’re
wearing goggles looking at pictures on TV screens, and not really
into it. Especially if it’s a technologically primitive form of virtual
reality where for instance there are just outline figures instead of
figures, or if there’s a noticeable lag in the movement of the screen
you move your head. So you can certainly talk yourself out of virtual
at the present stage of our technology.
But, if you make a
act of faith and think, "I’m here to enjoy this, to learn from this,"
can quite readily forget that this is virtual reality. The natural set
of programs in your brain, your "ecological self",* is taking
sensory input that’s coming in and creating YOU within that scene.
U. Neisser in Philosophical Psychology,1, No.1.]
The best example
a flight simulator, where you don’t wear goggles on your head. Rather,
you are in an exact replica of the cockpit of the plane you’re learning
to fly. And it does all the appropriate things . . . you see the runway
in front of you, when you turn on the engines you hear them, you feel
plane vibrating, you take off, you see yourself going down the runway
into the sky. It responds to controls. Pilot trainees very quickly
they’re in a flight simulator in that kind of virtual reality,
become totally absorbed in this as a reality.
Another good example
the star tours ride at Disneyland, also an extremely compelling
because technologically it doesn’t have to simulate everything. In
rides you’re in a spaceship. You’re only expected to see out a window
front; you don’t have to worry about whether everything to the side is
all right. Again, that can become extremely real. People will scream,
will occasionally throw up because of the incredible turns and
the thing makes. Intellectually, you could try to remember that
you are in a box on springs and pistons, and it doesn’t move more than
a few feet at any time. Yet when it goes over the edge of the cliff and
you fall one hundred feet, your stomach knows you fell one hundred
Again, that’s that
self which has been designed to take sensory input and construct a self
in that space to match it. So computer-generated virtual reality works
because we’ve already got a fantastically good internal system for
virtual reality. We’re not as aware of this internal system in
reality because the internal system or world simulation process as I
it is so good at generating an internal view of the physical parameters
of external reality that matches very well. If it doesn’t we get killed
by an oncoming vehicle or are put in a mental institution.
Once we get beyond
physical parameters of the world, there starts to become a lot more
as to how you simulate your world. If you have a paranoid, anxious
about you, it’s not as if you look at people across the street and
say to yourself, "That man has an ambiguous expression on his face. I
I will interpret it as possible hostility on his part." No, your
world simulation process takes that ambiguous expression and instantly
turns it into an expression that is obviously hostile. That’s the curse
and the blessing of the world simulation process. Our thinking
controls our perception to validate our own beliefs, our own
already have things that take us out of the reality we think of as
Reading and television, for example, can put us into another state.
the difference between those experiences and computer-generated reality?
and television that can take us out of ordinary reality depend very
on the person. For example, some people have a talent for getting so
in reading that they literally almost stop sensing the immediate
reality around them, and their world simulation process is generating
and feelings controlled by the content of the book. Similarly with
or TV, some people get really absorbed. They have a special talent.
Other people don’t
that much of a talent to do it, so it’s hard for them. If you’re
at television from the ordinary distance we view it, the screen
only about seven degrees of your visual field. So you have an enormous
amount of peripheral vision that keeps you from really getting absorbed
in the content. Now, computer-generated virtual reality, by totally
your visual field, can allow you to be immersed much more thoroughly.
a new model car? Or is it something that promises a significant change
deep personal change computer-generated virtual reality might cause is
going to be a function of two factors: one, your attitude, and two, the
power inherent in the technology itself. The telephone, for instance,
the ways people lived in a lot of ways, simply because of the power of
the instrument itself. It provided a new way of communication that
Let’s go back to the
factor, attitude. Some people have made a distinction which I
is very useful between states of consciousness and states of being; or
altered states of consciousness and altered states of being. You can
an unusual experience in an altered state of consciousness, like being
absorbed in a movie, but in terms of its long-term effect on your way
being it can have almost no effect. You can walk away from the
and you’re back to yourself.
Virtual reality can
be used that way. Some will say, "This is a way I play a game or design
a building or model an industrial process," and have a specific mental
set for it that prevents it from having any long-term change on their
of being. A lot of the purely technological applications will be along
that line. That’s fine; there are a lot of promising practical uses on
a purely technological basis where you wouldn’t particularly want to
But suppose you ask
question, how can I design a virtual reality that will not only induce
an altered state of consciousness in a person while they’re
it, but also hopefully induce long-term changes in their state of
make relatively permanent changes?
question. What's your answer?
obvious example here comes from the potential use of virtual reality in
psychotherapy. Let’s take as a given for the moment the widely shared
that a lot of psychopathology comes from emotional situations that were
not handled well in the past, where defenses were set up and you can’t
recall them properly. One way to deal with those is to try to have a
remember what happened and then work through the emotions and discover
new ways of coping with them.
recall childhood experiences. These are hard to recall in an adult
of consciousness, a different "frame of mind", from which to retrieve
memories. Suppose you could put a person into a virtual reality which
a replica of the living room he or she lived in as a child. The person
merely dons a helmet; then you have the computer change the room's
so that in relationship to the size of the furniture, the patient now
himself as two feet high, like when he or she was a little child.
You can let the
objects in that room. The reality can be arranged so they have the
that a two-foot child had. They can’t move a big chair without
a great deal, or if they throw a ball in this virtual living room,
not very coordinated in where it goes. You make more and more things
to the way they were when that person was a child.
Now, from general
findings I would say there would come a certain point in many cases,
all of a sudden this person would click back to a much more childlike
of mind. A lot of memories would become accessible and they could now
with things from that perspective much more thoroughly.
Hopefully, then, as
come out of the virtual reality therapy session, you’ve laid the
for some long-term positive changes to occur in their state of
you think we can change with the help of virtual reality? How
are we as human beings?
think the stupidest
thing I could say would be to draw any particular limit on how human
can change. In theory, I think human beings are infinitely
that our true natures are so vast and glorious and God-like and beyond
our ordinary conceptions that I wouldn’t want to put in any limits.
In practice we come nowhere near that for the vast majority of people,
the vast majority of the time. But in my view the skies are wide open,
literally, for what we could do.
The people who do
tremendously fall into several types. Some change because they’re
to – for example, suddenly all their loved ones die within a space of
month and they either change or die. Random stresses sometimes propel a
person to great growth, but more frequently they just make a person
down, get defensive and depressed.
There are also
people trying to change in ordinary ways, with self-improvement courses
or maybe a little bit of psychotherapy. They aren’t really thinking of
radical changes, but they certainly know there are some aspects of
personality or state of being that are undesirable and they're trying
come to a better state of being by ordinary social standards.
Then we have the
kind of people
who are trying to transcend ordinary cultural limits. Here we have
the yogis, the sufis, the fakirs, the monks – people who are really
to grow into a spiritual kind of being much beyond our ordinary selves.
This last group is a small number compared to the population at large.
One of the reasons they’re a small number is that it’s hard work
doing, and in many ways it’s very inefficient work. I mean, what
of the monks and nuns actually become saints? One out of a thousand?
out of ten thousand? It’s not as if there are spiritual training
around that are real sure-fire things for transforming people. One of
big interests in life has always been, how do we take traditional kinds
of spiritual ideas and separate the wheat from the chaff, find
and ideas that are really useful for people living in our times? Things
like meditation for instance, or Gurdjieff-type work. Virtual reality
be a very helpful tool in this regard.
research in virtual reality providing information about how we learn or
how we process?
virtual reality as an infinitely variable set of laboratories available
to observe people’s behavior. There are a lot of experiments you can’t
do in ordinary reality because it’s too expensive or ethically
In virtual reality, though, you can set up a world with certain
and easily observe how people behave.
You could see how
start in virtual reality. You could put a drunken person in virtual
and study their driving behavior in a virtual car in ways that would be
highly unethical and highly dangerous to do in a real car. Insofar as
can learn something from observing how people react in any situation
getting their report of it, there is an enormous number of practical
you can study in virtual reality.
people being able to connect with one another on a psychic level in
reality? Are there some ways to encourage and monitor non-verbal, even
let me give
you an example of how I’ve used the world simulation process – the
generated virtual reality – to investigate something that normally was
not investigative except indirectly.
If you observe the
people keep between themselves in interpersonal reactions you’ll find
unconsciously we’re very space sensitive. Europeans for instance get
closer to each other physically than Americans do, so you see funny
where a European essentially backs an American across the room. The
is just trying to move into a comfortable distance, which is too close
for the American. The American thinks these Europeans are so pushy and
the Europeans are thinking these Americans are so standoffish.
You could have
in a virtual world with other people in that world and you could make
personal space directly perceptible as part of that world – as say, a
area extending around the person’s virtual body, so as they walked
another person they could see how that interacted with the other
personal space in a literally sensory kind of way.
I stress this
talk about things verbally, but a lot of our thinking, a lot of our
evaluating really is perceptual evaluation. We may not be able to
at all about it. Once you can make that visible, tangible, hearable,
smellable, in an overt sort of way, you get access to all sorts of
about yourself and other people you might not normally have. This is
research possibility for virtual reality.
to go into a virtual reality and have so many things be arbitrary,
we, as a result of such exposure, develop a heightened ability to adapt
to changing objects or events or circumstances in ordinary reality –
could this have survival value for us?
think what you
have to learn in these virtual reality games and trainings is both
and discrimination. For instance, you could set up a virtual reality
you could walk through walls. Or you could step off the edges of things
and fly just by pointing your finger. Now if you come back into
reality and step off the edge of something and try to rescue yourself
pointing your finger so you can fly away, that’s stupidity. You have to
be discriminating of what reality you are operating in.
If you know you’re
for example, you can try things you shouldn’t try when you’re awake.
flexibility comes from whatever reality you’re in, whatever particular
virtual reality or state of consciousness. You can be more flexible if
you recognize that there are other realities. That what you see as
true in front of you may not be the only reality. This is the
with our ordinary state of consciousness. It’s very rigid. We’ve
a lot of rules that work well but we’ve learned them so rigidly that
very difficult for us to cope with change. But I think the ordinary
will learn how to handle various virtual realities and ordinary reality
quite well. Because as you become more flexible and discriminatory as
of a personal growth program, ordinary reality gets better and
think is the difference, other than technological, between a
drug experience and this virtual reality experience in terms of lasting
effects, if any?
virtual reality will be far more controllable. If you don’t like what’s
happening, you can reach out and flip a switch, and turn it off at that
moment, and it’s gone, except for your memory of it. You could have an
emotional experience in virtual reality where it might take a while for
you to calm down. But you can flip it off, or you can reprogram it to
in a different sort of way . . . make it a happy outcome instead of a
one, or if you’re tired of a happy one, make it a sad outcome. That
be a valuable learning experience at times. Whereas on the drug
you’re programmable by the expectations you bring into the experience
the events and suggestions that happen during it.
Now in principle, if
had some expert guides with you during a drug experience, they would
you quite heavily by constantly giving you suggestions as to what to
But then your own personality is involved too, and it has an agenda of
its own, which may not be in harmony with what the guides do. So the
experience is less controlled.
It also affects you
kinds of levels. The drug experience is not just changing your
input, it’s changing bodily functions, it’s probably changing your
to emotionally respond, and so forth. So it’s quite a different kind of
experience in certain profound ways. At the perceptual level, there can
certainly be a lot of overlap, but there is more control for the
Now again, how much
you is going to depend a lot on what you want and what you believe.
been surprised that some people hadn’t had more profound changes as a
of drug experiences. But one of the ways they protected themselves
it was to constantly sub-rate the experience by saying, "Oh this is
an effect of the drug. Here’s God talking to me, saying the thing I’ve
wanted to hear all my life, but this is just a hallucination caused by
a psychedelic." This is a way of resisting having to deal with the
of the experience.
This isn’t a
mechanism and doesn’t always work. Some people are profoundly affected
by such an experience even if they know it’s drug-induced. They may
the attitude that "Yes, this may be instigated by the drug, but
is experience is experience." And the question is, "How is it affecting
me and how can I learn from it?" – not "What brought it about?" It’s
the classic quarrel in the literature of "can psychedelic drugs induce
‘real’ mystical experiences?" Well, some people’s definition of a real
mystical experience means that God brought it about, not something
like a drug, therefore no matter what the experience, it can’t be real.
But that’s an a priori definition that you can’t do anything
here. There’s this ordinary level of analysis where we’re deciding what
to do and how it’s going to affect things and how we’re going to react
to it, and there’s another level at which you simply observe and know
things may happen for reasons greater than our ordinary consciousness
understand. Virtual reality is coming along and in one way we can say,
"Yeah, it’s just a technological development and we’ll try to control
Yet there are tremendous needs in the human psyche for different kinds
of experiences. Maybe there’s a spiritual level that’s pushing this
of thing, whether it meets our approval or not. Who knows the ultimate
reason of why it’s here? So we do our best and hope that the spirit
of reality are taking good care of us, too.
practical uses do you see for virtual reality?
reality could be set up for a whole variety of training situations that
will make people more relaxed, more effective, more intelligent. For
learning to handle stress. Most of the time when we’re in a stressful
it’s not because we chose to be in that particular situation. We
try to do something about it and we often don’t get very clear feedback
about the consequences, say, to the other person because the other
is an enemy in that situation. So, our training in how to handle stress
in a more intelligent, compassionate, relaxed fashion is very haphazard
and often very ineffective. It often just traumatizes us and hardens
defenses instead of teaching us a variety of appropriate skills for
with stressful situations.
The whole point is
new mental skills for handling difficulties, which will then transfer
of virtual reality. The virtual reality is a controlled practice area,
it’s not uncontrolled like ordinary life is.’