On February 24th, I had the pleasure to attend a presentation and discussion led by Deborah Jenson as part of the Franklin Center’s “Experiencing Virtual Worlds” program. Professor Jenson primarily focuses on 19th century French literature and Haitian literature, but is also interested in neurobiological virtual worlds and mirror neurons. The presentation mainly focused on the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or C.A.V.E. as well as mirror neurons. I found her talk extremely enlightening, and while much of it went far over my head, I hope to elucidate some of the points I found most interesting.
To begin, Professor Jenson provided a brief history of the C.A.V.E, focusing on Plato’s description of prisoners in Republic. In Plato’s explanation of humans as prisoners, he explained that we must look beyond the Cave, into the “hurtful emotion and blinding light.” Jenson uses this description as a metaphor for the transition from oral-based to literature-based culture. This evolution is very similar to today’s transition into the digital world, or the “Digital Republic”. Jenson provided a superb description of the reader of Plato, focusing on all of the forms of manipulation and distraction that are present in our lives today. Jenson listed Google Books, YouTube, and television, but left out Twitter, video chatting, and Facebook from this list. Each of these distractions removes us from our literal world and places us into this representative reality. One part of this discussion that was particularly relevant to my life was her commentary on “getting out of the Cave on weekends.” Personally, I believe we, as a society, have trouble ever escaping the Cave at this point. My smart phone surrounds me with my varying plethora of social media on a consistent basis. However, this is particularly evident with my father, who makes a mockery of the term vacation. While visiting me in Australia last year, my father was still able to check his email on his Blackberry and even bill hours to clients in the middle of the outback. The fact is that, as a society, we are far too connected and dependant on our technology and at times, our virtual realities appear more real than the environment surrounding us.
Professor Jenson then provided an in depth description and analysis of the C.A.V.E. She explained that, in the C.A.V.E., the user is in a simulation, engrossed in a virtual reality, a computer simulation that appears to our senses similar to the real world. In this way, the C.A.V.E. reveals that our sensory organs are merely intermediary components between the normal world and ourselves. This is not the traditional way that we think about the world around us, and thus the C.A.V.E. is both the room-sized cube of virtual reality as well as an allegory to Plato’s Cave. One implication of the C.A.V.E. is that there could be other worlds that we cannot sense, and that we could potentially navigate these worlds with sensorial experiences. This idea of the C.A.V.E. is a reason for which while reading, we place ourselves in the story, creating an avatar of ourselves, even if the narrative is not in first person. This phenomenon is referred to as character adoption, and is a demonstration of human dependence on representation.
The presentation topic then turned to mirror neurons and the concept of Caves to Mirrors, which is the concept that when we observe someone else performing an actions ,some of our neurons fire, causing a similar feeling in ourselves. This process can respond to even subtle actions and is defined by physiology, not anatomy. I think the notion of mirror neurons is particularly relevant to the discussion we just had in my class with Professor Davidson, Your Brain on the Internet, regarding pornography, as I believe mirror neurons are an important cause of the pleasure attained from pornography. Jenson stated that “mirror neurons learn,” and while she admitted this is a metaphor, I believe it holds both literal and figurative truth.
Professor Jenson then provided a detailed history of how mirror neurons entered the academic and scientific fields. I thought one of the more interesting parts of this history was the understanding that “the brain in isolation does only a very small part of what it does in full.” Another implication of mirror neurons is that as humans we have a sense marking ourselves as individuals while also feeling that we are similar to others. This leads to the question of how we could possibly know the value of experiences outside ourselves. While this question may primarily apply to knowing the value of other human’s experiences, it made me think of an episode of Mythbusters where the team hooked up plants to an EEG and galvanometer to see whether the plants had any reactions to harm being performed on the plants themselves or completely separate plants. The purpose of the experiment was to see whether there were any changes that could be interpreted as feelings. Unfortunately the myth was busted, however, simply performing this experiment demonstrates an appreciation for many of the concepts that Professor Jenson was speaking about.
Professor Jenson concluded with an example that provided clarity to the concept of mirror neurons in a real life scenario; relating the reproduction patterns of song birds. Duke Professor Richard Mooney studied song birds and their mirroring of auditory input, looking into their perception of communication gestures. Jenson described Mooney’s study as an evolutionary explanation of mirror neurons. Song birds depend on their songs for reproducing. If male song birds can not hit the right notes, they are not a sought after mate. If females can’t listen for the right notes, they do not get the most sought after males. Therefore there is an evolutionary advantage to singing and listening to the right notes. This displays a reinforcement of group psychology. Furthermore, empathetic mirroring explains that attunement makes it harder to hit the right note outside of a song bird’s group or species, making it harder to reproduce outside a song bird’s group or species.
Following her presentation, Professor Jenson held a fascinating question and answer portion, which touched on topics ranging from how she became interested in the C.A.V.E. and mirror neurons with a background in 19th century French literature, to how to apply analysis of mirror neurons past “good and evil.” One of the most intriguing topics of the Q&A was the discussion of how the type or mode of perception effects the user. In other words, how does perception and mirroring differ in a book versus a film versus virtual reality. Jenson explained that literature is extremely valuable because it provides a very sophisticated narrative experience. It was also stated that virtual reality is limited in its ways of projection, but I disagree. I believe that virtual reality could be far more helpful than literature in demonstrations, such as instructions for a doctor in how to perform an operation. I think that reading about an operation would not have the same mirroring effects as seeing it performed, or performing it yourself in a virtual space. As technology moves forward, I believe these virtual environments will soon surpass literature’s ability to create a mirroring effect. For example, observing Second Life fanatics; I am sure they achieve more consequences of mirroring from their time in their virtual world then they would by reading a book. The last topic discussed was the human and animal divide. The discussion centered on the idea that mirror neurons demonstrate just how much of an animal the human really is.
The talk was informative, fresh, and innovative. Professor Jenson touched on history just enough to provide a context for the audience, but made sure to always relate her academic concepts back to real world applications and examples. I would definitely suggest people look into both the C.A.V.E. and mirror neurons, and try to attend an “Experiencing Virtual Worlds” presentation and discussion if possible.