The Atlantic has an interesting article on "post-VR sadness" – apparently a fairly common syndrome, in which people who use high-end virtual-reality devices experience feelings of depersonalization, derealization, and depression after returning to the real world. As the sub-headline puts it, "After exploring a virtual world, some people can’t shake the sense that the actual world isn’t real, either."
As someone who's interested in the idea that the "real world" might be a kind of virtual reality simulation in itself, albeit far more sophisticated and subtle than anything our technology can produce, I found some of these excerpts pretty intriguing (all links in the original):
“[W]hile standing and in the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly strange, weird moment of comparing real life to the VR,” wrote the video-game developer Lee Vermeulen after he tried Valve’s SteamVR system back in 2014. He was mid-conversation with a coworker when he started to feel off, and the experience sounds almost metaphysical. “I understood that the demo was over, but it was [as] if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It gave me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me.” ...
Using a questionnaire to measure participants’ levels of dissociation before and after exposure to VR, Aardema found that VR increases dissociative experiences and lessens people’s sense of presence in actual reality. He also found that the greater the individual’s pre-existing tendency for dissociation and immersion, the greater the dissociative effects of VR. ...
While derealization is the feeling that the world isn’t real, depersonalization is the feeling that one’s self isn’t real. People who’ve experienced depersonalization say that it feels like they’re outside of their bodies, watching themselves. Derealization makes a person’s surroundings feel strange and dream-like, in an unsettling way, despite how familiar they may be. ...
In March, Alanah Pearce, an Australian video game journalist and podcast host, recounted troubling post-VR symptoms after the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal,” she said. “I’m not going to go into that too in-depth, because it’s something I haven’t yet grasped. But I know that I’m not alone, and other people who play VR feel the same thing, where it’s like, nothing really feels real anymore. It’s very odd.”
The article points out that there's a difference between the better-known effects of VR, such as motion sickness, and the more subtle but often more lingering psychological side effects.
This isn't an altogether new thing. Some people who saw the movie Avatar on an IMAX screen in 3D later complained that the real world paled by comparison. They weren't just kidding around. They seemed to experience a real sense of psychological withdrawal and a degree of difficulty in accepting ordinary reality again.
Help for Avatar withdrawal? Disney is developing a theme-park attraction that brings the planet of Pandora to life.
What struck me as particularly interesting is that the psychological effects described by subjects in the Atlantic piece are very similar to the state of mind often described by mystics or by people who have had intense transcendent experiences, such as NDEs. The feeling that the physical world is unreal, or at least less real than it appears, has been noted by people who contrast the hyperreality of an NDE or a transported mystical state with mundane reality. The intuition that the self is only a construct, something not ultimately real, is the realization toward which many meditative practices are directed.
Incidentally, there been reports that the practice of mindfulness meditation can also lead to feelings of derealization and depersonalization, along with a significant increase in anxiety. This may be further evidence that the mental state that sometimes follows virtual-reality immersion can be similar to the mental state produced by some methods of meditation. The Atlantic article itself notes that one person's post-VR experience "sounds almost metaphysical." Indeed.
And while I'm sure these changes of mind can be disorienting and upsetting to people who are unprepared for them, and may even be dangerous in people with a history of anxiety or depression, it's at least possible that these new outlooks, if creatively embraced and utilized, will prove not so much pathological as liberating.
The Atlantic piece frets:
To what extent is VR causing users to question the nature of their own reality? And how easily are people able to tackle this line of questioning without losing their grip?
A more difficult question, one the Atlantic doesn't ask, is whether or not the newfound perspective reported by these VR users might be valid. Could these people actually be correct in seeing the physical world as less than fully real and in seeing their own personal identity as an artificial construction? Rather than a step into madness, maybe they've taken a step toward greater sanity.
Or maybe not. It's much too early to tell.
But as VR becomes more ubiquitous and more fully immersive, we can expect to learn a lot more about how the mind processes its interaction with an environment that feels real but is only a remarkable simulation. At the same time, we may end up learning more about reality itself.