Seeing yourself from the outside (pretty literally)

Nov 16 2019

For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.

And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.

If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.


Here’s how it works:

You strap on the virtual reality goggles and see a virtual Sigmund Freud. If you’re not a Freud fan, don’t worry: the success of this technique doesn’t depend on the merits of Freudianism. The reason is that you’re going to do all the talking for Freud, and you’re under no compulsion to imitate him. 

But I’m getting ahead of the story. 

You start by explaining to this virtual Freud some problem you’re having. Virtual Freud—let’s call him Pixar Freud, since he looks about as much like Freud as a character in a Pixar movie might—listens patiently.

Then you jump into Pixar Freud’s skin and see Pixar You explaining the problem as you just explained it—complete with the gestures and expressions you used. Then you, as Pixar Freud, respond to Pixar You with a comment and/or question. And, lest you have doubts that you’re really capable of filling Freud’s shoes, there’s a full-length virtual mirror nearby, in which you can see Pixar Freud—the character you’re at this point inhabiting—speaking and gesturing as you speak and gesture. 

Then you switch roles again and rewind the virtual videotape again. Now you’re you again, watching the Pixar Freud character say the things you just said. You respond to them, and then slip back into Pixar Freud’s skin…and so on.

I know, I know—it sounds so complicated that meditation is starting to look easy by comparison. And we don’t yet know if this technique can work in the sense of bringing actual therapeutic benefits. But the average participant said it helped along all five dimensions they were asked about (gave them more knowledge about the problem, better understanding of it, new ideas about it, more control over it, and a better perspective on it). 

And these ratings were higher than the ratings given by people who never got to inhabit Pixar Freud and instead just explained their problems to a Pixar Freud who then asked scripted questions. This suggests that some of the (perceived) value came not just from talking about the problem, but from actually adopting the role of listener and counselor and shaping the conversation.  

Obviously, it’s early days. But what intrigues me is how far technologies like this could eventually evolve. And, in any event, you have to applaud the effort. There are certainly less enlightening uses to which virtual reality can be put. 

BTW, if you’re curious about what Pixar Freud looks like, here’s a 2018 video that explains the basic mechanics of the study. 

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