Virtual reality and the divided self

Can virtual reality help us live in an increasing digital world?

Technological advancement has increased exponentially. However, biological evolution continues to move slowly. Are our animal selves dangerously out-of-sync with the progress made in the digital world? We must, perhaps counter-intuitively, use the technology of virtual reality to re-align our organic identities with our digital ones, write Mike Heim.



The evolutionary loop between embodied selves and media production is out-of-sync. Dangerously out-of-phase. People adjust to new technology, and the producers in turn target a new kind of user. Over time, the gap between our embodied selves and the online world produces a Divided Self. We might draw on past models to better synchronize the loop to create an alternate and more deliberate evolution. The changing relationship between evolving organisms and their technology is an art project of major proportions. The artists might consider the feedback model explored by Robert Monroe in the 1960s.


The Divided Self

During the February 2021 US Senate Impeachment trial, Senator Rand Paul looked down and doodled on a yellow pad while the shocking video evidence of the January 2021 assault on the Capitol Building showed the violence and death in the attempted coup. Hundreds of mobile phones recorded the riot. It would take a political psychoanalyst to explain the Senator’s reaction to the weeks-old spectacle, but simply watching from afar, we might tag the senator another instance of the “Divided Self.”

Such evasive behavior can remind us of the sense of division felt in online activities. There the authentic self hides behind secret passwords and fingerprint scanners. And these masks are only the prelude to meeting other people’s online masks and avatars. Any avatar or emoticon can hide a troll. That is in the nature of avatars and icons. Emails too can be fake. And the sympathetically listening facial expression on Zoom might actually be a pre-recorded one-minute video loop.

Behind the masks are often a larger context of signaled intentions and security protocols to convey safety and to re-assure users. Still, the gap between glyph and feeling makes lying possible, if not inevitable. Words themselves introduce lie-ability. Former President Trump’s Big Lie (“the election was stolen”) continues to ricochet across a vast cyberspace beyond the control of governments and tech producers. Internationally, governments scramble to re-invent a decently shared public space that is safe and productive. The public space will, to some degree, always project a persona - Greek for “mask” — of which the avatar is just one guise.

The changing relationship between evolving organisms and their technology is an art project of major proportions


VR Facebook

The search for trustworthy public space cannot tame the whiplash of tech development. Human cultures shift slowly while software and hardware follow Moore’s Law. One of the most rapid tech developments happened over the past five years in the case of Virtual Reality (VR). The investment value of VR spiked mightily after Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014. The boost in Facebook R & D greatly improved VR equipment — headset and tracking gear. At the same time in global culture, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the quantity and quality of virtual meetings and online play spaces. As the foremost leader in “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff), Facebook has put full-body telemetry on the cultural horizon. Subconscious gestures and the sympathetic nervous system are potentially new objects for data mining and mapping psych profiles. What does my game of table tennis in Oculus Quest reveal about my nervous system and about my instinctive responses? How does my history of personal purchases fit my body type? And so on....


Trade-offs & Challenges

Most Internet users accept the trade-offs of privacy in exchange for empowerment — as if there were a real choice. My friend echoes a widespread sentiment when he writes in an email: “To my mind, we already sold our souls to Facebook. I think the bigger issue is that Facebook/Oculus will record what we see and do in VR for security purposes.” The Divided Self focuses on its goals while the feeling of compromise softens to a future hypothetical. This is the way the teetering balance keeps the creaky cycle going: technology supports the activity even while exploiting it for other purposes. 

Focusing on my own goals allows me to ignore my Divided Self. But if evolution demands a more conscious and deliberate response, the divide may widen to a chasm and the strain may prove painful. Under pressure, the split self seeks greater integration, more synchronization, a more transparent loop. What art can make the organism and its support technology less divided, less out of sync? Is there a model for the process of re-integrating the divided self? Can a self be harmonized not in spite of technology but by means of technology?

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Previous cultures forged unified public-private selves by introducing rituals and ceremonies. A personal ritual unifies the private self by regularly gathering and focusing energies. Public ceremonies likewise clothe the private self in a public persona. Previous epochs invested a major portion of personal time in ritual and ceremony. Ritual and ceremony are cultural tools that shape cohesion and focus. They harmonize. Can the arts today imagine new rituals and ceremonies designed for digital non-physical space?


The Monroe Institute

An early model for synchronization comes from VR history. The model still functions well in a set of audio recordings that originated on compact disk. The Hemi-Sync audio project was designed to synchronize the brain’s two hemispheres. Stereo separation in 1960s headphones enabled Robert Monroe at the Monroe Institute to send two different audio waves — say 120 Hz and 128 Hz (Hertz = cycles per second) — to each ear. The brain first registers the two tones as separate sounds but gradually synthesizes the two steady sounds into a single smoothly fluctuating wave pattern. The resulting perception is a sound that warbles similar to what you might hear while riding in a two-propeller airplane. This “binaural beat” became the basis for Monroe’s legacy series called “The Gateway Experience,” a set of sound tools on compact disks for self-transformation. Many of these recordings are still available online at the Monroe Institute. Robert Monroe theorized that the brain — left and right hemispheres — synthesizes the binaural sounds and brings the human organism into an unusually deep harmony. The focal left brain harmonizes with the peripheral-parasympathetic right side of the brain. Monroe’s series produces such deep levels of relaxation that the listening subject is aware of itself floating consciously beyond the body as physical sensations recede and attention arrives at “out-of-body” (OBE) experiences.

When a culture is out of sync, evolution feels like whiplash.


A Model for Synchronizing

Robert Monroe (1915 – 1995) viewed his sound explorations as an intervention in human evolution. The Monroe Institute in Virginia continues to research and produce new initiatives, as can be found on the Institute’s YouTube channel and website. For decades, the patented Hemi-Sync sound technology has provided a vehicle for artists and advocates to bring new art and spiritual work to public fruition. These tools for enhancing and focusing brain waves is currently used by programs in ecology, therapy, and mystical experience.

The Hemi-Sync approach remains one model for similar and related approaches to synchronizing and re-harmonizing evolution. Offshoots include GlideWing, the Shift Network, and Embodied Philosophy. There is rapid growth in online seminars for raising the individual toward a more conscious level of evolution, toward what philosopher Tim Freke calls “unividualism.” On this level, the Divided Self synchronizes its polarized role as ego-centered individual with its role as creature of the cosmos.


The Big Picture

Any era that feels the pain of division like ours has a need for healing, for regaining wholeness. When a culture is out of sync, evolution feels like whiplash. To keep the crash in perspective during such times, the statement from the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947) can calm and console. The great scientist and thinker paints us into a big picture on the very first page of his book Science and the Modern World (1925):

”The progress of civilization is not wholly a uniform drift towards better things. It may perhaps wear this aspect if we map it on a scale which is large enough. But such broad views obscure the details on which rests our whole understanding of the process. New epochs emerge with comparative suddenness, if we have regard to the scores of thousands of years throughout which the complete history extends.”

If our new epoch cannot embrace the big picture of a “uniform drift towards better things,” we can for now at least focus on the more immediate effort to balance and synchronize the sudden whiplash of the Divided Self. The cosmic planetary picture may require more than we are up for at present, but we can at least engage in a personal-spiritual process that harmonizes the soul and thereby perhaps enhances future culture and hopefully the soul of the world and the cosmos itself.

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