What is the reality that is closest to reality

“Real is what we experience as real.” This is how an excursion into virtual reality changes body and mind

What recently sounded like a vision of the future is becoming more and more common. In the meantime, there are already attachments for many cell phones with which you can create a virtual reality (VR) and thus immerse yourself in other worlds. The pictures look very real. So you can imagine yourself in a helicopter flight or diving in the sea, while in reality you are sitting very still in a chair. How do these impressions affect the human body and psyche? And what will our future look like with the new technology? We discussed this with Prof. Dr. Peter Michael Bak, Professor of Business Psychology (B.Sc.) at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, Department of Business & Media.


Professor Bak, if the visual impressions do not match the movements of the body, many people feel sick, for example when reading in the car or in a 3D cinema. How pronounced is that when you wear VR glasses?

In fact, unpleasant side effects can also be observed when wearing VR glasses. There are reports of balance disorders, motor disorders, nausea or stress. That of course depends on what happens in the artificial world as well as in the real world. So if I ride a virtual roller coaster, the same thing might happen as if I were doing it in an amusement park. Fortunately, the effects are rather minor and only short-term.


Do changes in virtual reality - for example a sunset that we are looking at there - also have an impact on the real feeling? Does it feel colder or does your body temperature actually drop?

This can be assumed in any case. In order to understand this, you basically only have to be clear about the following. What we call reality is always only an experience of reality, i.e. that a different experience goes hand in hand with different realities. For example, think of dreaming. While we actually sleep comfortably and safely in our bed, we dream the most exciting things, with very specific psychological and physiological effects. We are afraid or we are happy. Our heart is racing or beating relaxed. The reason for this is not real circumstances, but the film that is currently being played in our head. In principle, our information processing system does not care where the information comes from, the basic processes for establishing a tangible reality are always the same.


What are the most extreme known effects that VR has had on the body and on the psyche?

Well, of course that is a matter of opinion. Personally, I find the studies particularly fascinating that show that we can even leave our bodies in virtual environments and identify with a virtual body. Studies on the so-called rubber hand illusion in particular show this impressively. Test subjects see z. B. how a doll's hand is stroked. Your own hand is not visible but is touched in the same way. And then the unbelievable happens, namely that people suddenly mistake the artificial hand for their own hand. A common explanation for this is that our brains simply make the contradicting sensory information between arm position and visual input congruent. In the meantime there are studies that go even further and show that as a woman you can e.g. B. can slip into the body of a man. There was also evidence of an increase in heartbeat when the virtual alter ego was threatened. From my point of view, these studies show above all that the unalterable unity between our body and our mental experience is not indissoluble in our everyday experience. However, such effects require more than just visual stimulation, which is what 3D glasses have been able to achieve up to now. The whole thing gets exciting when in the near future other senses are manipulated at the same time, for example with pressure suits etc.


There is an experiment in which someone experiences what someone else has experienced and recorded before through VR glasses and headphones. What does such an experience do with your own psyche?

At best, this can increase the empathy we feel for the other person. The more similar my experience is to the experience of another person, the better I can put myself mentally and emotionally into this person. I am then, so to speak, “a guest in your reality” to try to get the title of my last book.


On the one hand, VR offers a wide range of possible applications for education, science and entertainment. On the other hand, escapism threatens. Which side is stronger?

I assume that the possibilities of virtual reality will not result in any major shifts to what is already reality today. Ultimately, there are already numerous ways to say goodbye to our everyday reality. Be it various media or alcohol and other drugs. As with all technologies, it will be important to learn how to use them healthily.


What is in store for us now that VR applications are becoming cheaper and more commonplace?

VR is sure to be one of the next great technical revolutions. Technical devices such as smartphones, television or computers as we know them today will disappear. Instead, we will use the possibilities of virtual or augmented reality, i.e. the interlinking of analog and virtual reality, everywhere. We no longer need a mouse, keyboards or stylus. We will control a lot through language and movement and will be able to experience multisensual content much more directly than has been the case up to now. Together with the possibilities of artificial intelligence, this will lead to a radical change in our lives in all areas.


The feeling of really being in another world is called immersion. Is it enough just to see the other world or do other senses have to be addressed? And how can that work? What else is in store for us?

The more senses are addressed, the better we can immerse ourselves in another world. You have to know that the senses do not work in isolation, but complement each other to create a sensory impression. A holistic experience therefore requires all the senses. There are numerous developments in this area that aim to make virtual experiences as realistic as possible. The combination of visual and auditory impressions is already the state of the art today. But there are already pressure gloves or suits that are supposed to appeal to our sense of touch. The possibilities for manipulating taste and smell are still very underdeveloped. But there will certainly be great progress in the not-too-distant future.


Does the so-called mixed or augmented (extended) reality have even stronger effects on the psyche because real perception and images mix?

For our experience, there is always only one reality, which is composed of the currently available information and impressions. At the same time, this means that we can in principle experience an infinite number of realities, depending on which information and experience impressions we are currently accessing. The idea that one could decide between a real and a false reality is pointless from this point of view. Up to now, no one has been able to recognize reality as it really is, since recognition is always linked to our prior knowledge. So when we speak of reality, it only makes sense if we mean that reality should be a description of the fact that in some situations - namely the situations that appear real to us - we can behave reliably and come to a reliable experience. From this we distinguish other, unreal situations in which we do not get ahead with our proven behavior and our experience is expressed in a manner that is not controlled by us and is not plausible. We all know experiences that seem very real to us and those that literally pull the rug out from under our feet and seem completely unreal to us. However, we should not confuse this experiential reality or unreality with a real reality of whatever kind, which is closed to us from the outset by the limitation of our sensory organs and their processing possibilities. Our reality is nothing more than the result of a permanent construction process.


Tobias Holischka, research assistant at the Chair of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, says: “Everything should be understood as real that has an effect.” What is reality anyway? And how important will real places be in the future?

I can only agree with my colleague. Real is what we experience as real. Point. The distinction between real places and bogus places then no longer makes sense from this perspective. What should a real place be? And what makes it different from a fake place. A place is a place when we experience it as a place. And then it's a real place too. And nobody can tell us that we are wrong. Subjective experience is always true. That's why I can relax in my armchair right after the interview and put myself in my mind to another place, where the sun is shining, the sea is so wonderfully relaxing and I really enjoy myself. I can only encourage you to give it a try. You will see that you can relax and return to the place of your everyday reality from this imagined place, which is clearly defined in your imagination. And very real. Much more important than the question of the real place is the question of whether new technologies will change our social interaction. Because social interaction presupposes that one constructs reality to some extent in the same way, that one can meet in the same place. However, since we are existentially dependent on social interaction, I am in good spirits too.


For further reading:

Bak, Peter Michael: As a guest in your reality. Empathy as the key to successful communication. Springer Spectrum 2016