Noetic Sciences Review, Autumn 1991, pages 6-17
Virtual Reality: An Interview with Charles Tart
Charles Tart is 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 which, while often quite extraordinary, does not seem unusual while we are dreaming. Through simulations induced by technology, we encounter additional "realities" – at the movies, on television, on spaceship rides at Disneyland. And now we can add to all of these the newly emerging computer-generated world of "virtual reality"...

Still in its infancy, computer-generated virtual reality offers choices of interacting in an instantly created and rapidly changeable environment. 
While motion pictures and television impact our everyday world by providing additional auditory and visual input, computer-generated applications are able to reduce or eliminate extraneous auditory and visual sensations, heightening the sense of realness. Proponents of virtual 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 perceive at any time.
Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research, Inc., and a major developer of virtual reality, suggests that in walking through life every day, the border between what’s really out there and our internal experience of it is very fuzzy. However, in the clothing of virtual reality, something striking happens: For the first time there’s a sharp, clear boundary between the outside – what’s generated by the system – and the inside. 
Exciting possibilities abound in considering practical applications in virtual reality. Architects, designers and contractors could enter a simulated building and make changes in walls, windows, doors, and ceilings before engaging in costly physical construction. Microbiologists might be able to travel through DNA helixes and rearrange genetic coding while surgeons could enter a CAT scan of their patient’s brain to observe 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. – Sharon Bard 


Sharon Bard: You have said that virtual reality is going to make a significant change in how we view consciousness.

Charles Tart: Yes, because I think computer-generated virtual reality is a tool that illustrates what most people grasp intuitively: that we already live in a virtual reality, that we don’t just perceive 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 it, objects, actions, things happen, it seems to take place over time, a plot 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. Now that’s a very clear demonstration that your own mind has all the capacities necessary to completely generate a perceptual world, a virtual reality. Your dream reality is literally a virtual reality.
The most important lesson, once you realize that your mind can generate a virtual reality all of its own, is to drop the naive assumption we have about our ordinary state of consciousness – or even some altered states – that we simply and directly perceive the truth. Rather we need to recognize that we’re always filtering, we’re always constructing, we’re always selecting, we’re always rejecting 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 street parallel to me, what I might tend to naively do is assume that is really a threatening person and I’d better do something like shoot first before being shot, which has consequences. 
Once you begin to recognize that you’re always constructing your own world, in selective ways to some extent, you can begin to wonder: "Is it simply a matter of the person across 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 everywhere, but almost nothing ever happens from these so-called threatening people, then I can appropriately question whether in my construction of the world I accurately portray what’s out there, or whether I’m projecting my own psychological processes. 

SB: When the simulation is created or changed externally, as in a computer-generated virtual reality, how is it then internalized so that a person who is using this model is able to make that transition?

CT: The transition is not hard at all. When people first put on the goggles in a computer-generated 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 really wearing goggles looking at pictures on TV screens, and not really getting into it. Especially if it’s a technologically primitive form of virtual reality where for instance there are just outline figures instead of full figures, or if there’s a noticeable lag in the movement of the screen when you move your head. So you can certainly talk yourself out of virtual reality at the present stage of our technology. 
But, if you make a small act of faith and think, "I’m here to enjoy this, to learn from this," you can quite readily forget that this is virtual reality. The natural set of programs in your brain, your "ecological self",* is taking the sensory input that’s coming in and creating YOU within that scene. [*See U. Neisser in Philosophical Psychology,1, No.1.] 
The best example here is 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 the plane vibrating, you take off, you see yourself going down the runway pulling into the sky. It responds to controls. Pilot trainees very quickly forget they’re in a flight simulator in that kind of virtual reality, and become totally absorbed in this as a reality.
Another good example is the star tours ride at Disneyland, also an extremely compelling simulator, because technologically it doesn’t have to simulate everything. In those rides you’re in a spaceship. You’re only expected to see out a window in 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, they will occasionally throw up because of the incredible turns and maneuvers the thing makes. Intellectually, you could try to remember that actually 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 feet. 
Again, that’s that ecological 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 generating virtual reality. We’re not as aware of this internal system in ordinary reality because the internal system or world simulation process as I call 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 simple physical parameters of the world, there starts to become a lot more subjectivity as to how you simulate your world. If you have a paranoid, anxious streak about you, it’s not as if you look at people across the street and intellectually say to yourself, "That man has an ambiguous expression on his face. I think I will interpret it as possible hostility on his part." No, your internal 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 actually controls our perception to validate our own beliefs, our own emotions. 

SB: Right now we already have things that take us out of the reality we think of as ordinary. Reading and television, for example, can put us into another state. What’s the difference between those experiences and computer-generated reality?

CT: Things like reading and television that can take us out of ordinary reality depend very much on the person. For example, some people have a talent for getting so immersed in reading that they literally almost stop sensing the immediate physical reality around them, and their world simulation process is generating imagery and feelings controlled by the content of the book. Similarly with movies or TV, some people get really absorbed. They have a special talent.
Other people don’t have that much of a talent to do it, so it’s hard for them. If you’re looking at television from the ordinary distance we view it, the screen occupies 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 controlling your visual field, can allow you to be immersed much more thoroughly.

SB: Is this like a new model car? Or is it something that promises a significant change in people? 

CT: How much really 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, changed 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 wasn’t there otherwise. 
Let’s go back to the first factor, attitude. Some people have made a distinction which I think is very useful between states of consciousness and states of being; or altered states of consciousness and altered states of being. You can have 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 of being it can have almost no effect. You can walk away from the experience and you’re back to yourself. 
Virtual reality can certainly 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 state 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 change people’s mindset.
But suppose you ask the question, how can I design a virtual reality that will not only induce an altered state of consciousness in a person while they’re experiencing it, but also hopefully induce long-term changes in their state of being, make relatively permanent changes?

SB: That's a good question. What's your answer?

CT: Well, the most 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 belief 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 patient remember what happened and then work through the emotions and discover new ways of coping with them.
Suppose you’re trying to recall childhood experiences. These are hard to recall in an adult state of consciousness, a different "frame of mind", from which to retrieve the memories. Suppose you could put a person into a virtual reality which is 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 proportions so that in relationship to the size of the furniture, the patient now perceives himself as two feet high, like when he or she was a little child. 
You can let the person manipulate objects in that room. The reality can be arranged so they have the strength that a two-foot child had. They can’t move a big chair without struggling a great deal, or if they throw a ball in this virtual living room, they’re not very coordinated in where it goes. You make more and more things similar to the way they were when that person was a child.
Now, from general psychological findings I would say there would come a certain point in many cases, where all of a sudden this person would click back to a much more childlike frame of mind. A lot of memories would become accessible and they could now work with things from that perspective much more thoroughly.
Hopefully, then, as they come out of the virtual reality therapy session, you’ve laid the groundwork for some long-term positive changes to occur in their state of being. 

SB: How far do you think we can change with the help of virtual reality? How remappable are we as human beings? 

CT: I think the stupidest thing I could say would be to draw any particular limit on how human beings can change. In theory, I think human beings are infinitely changeable, 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 change tremendously fall into several types. Some change because they’re forced to – for example, suddenly all their loved ones die within a space of one month and they either change or die. Random stresses sometimes propel a person to great growth, but more frequently they just make a person shut down, get defensive and depressed.
There are also ordinary 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 their personality or state of being that are undesirable and they're trying to 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 trying 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 they’re doing, and in many ways it’s very inefficient work. I mean, what percentage of the monks and nuns actually become saints? One out of a thousand? One out of ten thousand? It’s not as if there are spiritual training techniques around that are real sure-fire things for transforming people. One of my big interests in life has always been, how do we take traditional kinds of spiritual ideas and separate the wheat from the chaff, find techniques and ideas that are really useful for people living in our times? Things like meditation for instance, or Gurdjieff-type work. Virtual reality might be a very helpful tool in this regard. 

SB: Do you see research in virtual reality providing information about how we learn or how we process?

CT: You might consider 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 questionable. In virtual reality, though, you can set up a world with certain characteristics and easily observe how people behave. 
You could see how fights start in virtual reality. You could put a drunken person in virtual reality 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 you can learn something from observing how people react in any situation and getting their report of it, there is an enormous number of practical things you can study in virtual reality. 

SB: What about people being able to connect with one another on a psychic level in virtual reality? Are there some ways to encourage and monitor non-verbal, even extra-sensory behavior?

CT: Well, let me give you an example of how I’ve used the world simulation process – the internally generated virtual reality – to investigate something that normally was not investigative except indirectly.
If you observe the space people keep between themselves in interpersonal reactions you’ll find that unconsciously we’re very space sensitive. Europeans for instance get much closer to each other physically than Americans do, so you see funny things where a European essentially backs an American across the room. The European 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 people interacting in a virtual world with other people in that world and you could make their personal space directly perceptible as part of that world – as say, a colored area extending around the person’s virtual body, so as they walked toward another person they could see how that interacted with the other person’s personal space in a literally sensory kind of way.
I stress this because we 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 verbalize at all about it. Once you can make that visible, tangible, hearable, and smellable, in an overt sort of way, you get access to all sorts of things about yourself and other people you might not normally have. This is another research possibility for virtual reality.

SB: If we’re able to go into a virtual reality and have so many things be arbitrary, might we, as a result of such exposure, develop a heightened ability to adapt to changing objects or events or circumstances in ordinary reality – and could this have survival value for us?

CT: I think what you have to learn in these virtual reality games and trainings is both flexibility and discrimination. For instance, you could set up a virtual reality where 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 ordinary reality and step off the edge of something and try to rescue yourself by 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 dreaming, for example, you can try things you shouldn’t try when you’re awake. The 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 obviously true in front of you may not be the only reality. This is the problem with our ordinary state of consciousness. It’s very rigid. We’ve learned a lot of rules that work well but we’ve learned them so rigidly that it’s very difficult for us to cope with change. But I think the ordinary person will learn how to handle various virtual realities and ordinary reality quite well. Because as you become more flexible and discriminatory as part of a personal growth program, ordinary reality gets better and better. 

SB: What do you think is the difference, other than technological, between a psychedelic drug experience and this virtual reality experience in terms of lasting effects, if any? 

CT: First of all, 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 run in a different sort of way . . . make it a happy outcome instead of a sad one, or if you’re tired of a happy one, make it a sad outcome. That might be a valuable learning experience at times. Whereas on the drug experience, you’re programmable by the expectations you bring into the experience and the events and suggestions that happen during it.
Now in principle, if you had some expert guides with you during a drug experience, they would program you quite heavily by constantly giving you suggestions as to what to experience. 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 drug experience is less controlled.
It also affects you at deeper kinds of levels. The drug experience is not just changing your perceptual input, it’s changing bodily functions, it’s probably changing your ability 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 virtual reality experience.
Now again, how much it affects you is going to depend a lot on what you want and what you believe. I’ve been surprised that some people hadn’t had more profound changes as a result of drug experiences. But one of the ways they protected themselves against it was to constantly sub-rate the experience by saying, "Oh this is just 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 implications of the experience.
This isn’t a complete control 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 take the attitude that "Yes, this may be instigated by the drug, but experience 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 like 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 artificial 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 about. 
There’s a fundamental point 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 certain things may happen for reasons greater than our ordinary consciousness can 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 it." Yet there are tremendous needs in the human psyche for different kinds of experiences. Maybe there’s a spiritual level that’s pushing this kind 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 forces of reality are taking good care of us, too.

SB: What everyday, practical uses do you see for virtual reality?

CT: I think virtual reality could be set up for a whole variety of training situations that will make people more relaxed, more effective, more intelligent. For example, learning to handle stress. Most of the time when we’re in a stressful situation it’s not because we chose to be in that particular situation. We desperately 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 person 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 our defenses instead of teaching us a variety of appropriate skills for dealing with stressful situations.
The whole point is to learn new mental skills for handling difficulties, which will then transfer out of virtual reality. The virtual reality is a controlled practice area, it’s not uncontrolled like ordinary life is.’