VR and Your Brain: Is Metaverse the End of Humanity?
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants us all to quit reality and move to the Metaverse — a Virtual Reality world where we would live happily ever after as digital avatars. He said it would be great.
Do you think we can trust him?
The words “Metaverse” and “Avatar” are the inventions of Neal Stephenson, who coined the terms in his famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, which takes place in a high tech, dystopian, violent, lawless future world run not by governments, but by powerful private corporations. In the course of action, lots of characters die a spectacular graphic death, while the protagonist saves the world from a digital drug that destroys people’s brains. Stephenson wrote the book in 1991.
Brace yourself. Metaverse is about to replace reality.
Better Than Morphine
There was a fascinating study performed at the University of Washington Medical Center. During wound care — an excruciating procedure with pain that even morphine could not alleviate — burn victims were equipped with VR sets. Inside, they would throw snowballs at penguins. The results were amazing: patients reported significantly less pain with VR than without it.
Virtual Reality reduced pain of patients with combat burn injuries better than morphine. How?
You need attention to process pain. If your attention is engaged elsewhere, you feel less pain. What made Virtual Reality better than opioids in pain management was DISTRACTION.
Morphine is an extremely powerful drug with serious addictive potential and dangerous side effects. It is only given to people in severe life-threatening pain, or to people who are dying. An overdose of morphine means death.
If VR is more powerful than morphine in relieving physical pain, how much more powerful it can be in relieving the pain of everyday life?
To the point when we opt out of life altogether?
The Side Effects Warning
Like morphine, VR has side effects. If you take the time to read Facebook’s Oculus VR official safety warnings, it sounds like an extremely dangerous illegal street drug:
- “Effects of prolonged use may put you at an increased risk of injury when engaging in normal activities in the real world. Until you have fully recovered from any effects, do not drive, operate machinery, or engage in other activities that could result in injury or damage to property, activities that require unimpaired balance and hand-eye coordination.”
- “Symptoms of virtual reality exposure can persist and become more apparent hours after use.”
- Symptoms include:
Loss of awareness
Eye or muscle twitching
Altered, blurred, or double vision
Impaired hand-eye coordination
Most warnings concentrate on falling down the stairs, colliding with the walls, or stepping on a pet. But is physical safety our biggest concern when it comes to Virtual Reality?
We may not only lose our balance — we may lose our very humanity.
Human Being, Virtually Modified
“Virtual reality is immersive and can be intense. Frightening, violent, or anxiety-provoking content can cause your body to react as if it were real.” (Oculus VR official safety warnings).
Lately, there has been much excitement about neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change through growth and reorganization. Imagine — you can learn, build new habits, become a better person — at any age!
Because our brain rewires itself in response to the environment.
It’s consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution: a variation in the environment sends a species in a new direction.
Which begs the question — what mutations would be caused in humans by the massive shift from tangible reality to life in the Metaverse?
The adjustment can be for better or for worse, brain plasticity works both ways. What happens to the brain and behavior when sophisticated AI shapes the environment in which we operate?
Scientists already know. Virtual Reality rewires the circuits in the brain. The brain does not care if the experience is real — it learns from it anyway.
Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction lab, lead by professor Jeremy Bailenson, studies the psychological and behavioral effects of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (AR). In one experiment, they calculated that it takes 4 minutes to switch the use of arms and legs if the limbs operating a VR avatar were reversed. In another study, researchers found that after people had an experience in augmented reality, their interactions in their physical world changed as well. They appeared to be influenced by a virtual person just as much as by the real human. “We’ve discovered that using augmented reality technology can change where you walk, how you turn your head, how well you do on tasks, and how you connect socially with other physical people in the room,” said Bailenson.
In short, the lab proved in multiple settings that spending time in VIRTUAL reality will change our perception and behavior in ACTUAL reality.
The aftereffects of VR look a lot like the Game Transfer Phenomenon, originally known as the Tetris effect, documented by multiple studies. It happens when people start seeing elements of the video game everywhere, if they have been playing the game long enough. The whole world starts looking like Tetris. They are basically hallucinating.
Spend enough time in the Metaverse — and the reality would no longer look real.
Jason Silva of Brain Games National Geographic show once conducted an experiment when they put special glasses on participants that skewed their field of vision. Not surprisingly, people could not grab objects in front of them and made a mess of their food. What is more fascinating is that when the glasses were removed and normal field of vision restored, the subjects could not function. One guy broke a whole tower of champagne glasses. It was spectacular — and illustrative.
In just a few minutes people’s brains were rewired, and when they returned to the real world, they could not operate in it.
And that is just a funky pair of glasses, not a VR set. If a few minutes of impaired perception can rewire the brain enough that you can’t pour yourself a drink, imagine what several hours a day in a Virtual Reality could do. Especially in a child’s immature growing brain.
Child Development, Canceled
Once at a science museum I let my 6 year old son try the VR set (an instance of misguided parenting on my part). It was a 2 minute experience fighting zombies. He was really into it, but emerged totally disoriented and uncomfortable, saying he would not want to do it again, because it felt real and scary.
An adult brain cannot differentiate between VR and the real world. Kids have no chance.
VR would be real for them. I can testify from personal experience that even regular video games are capable of this. The same kid once found a real pickaxe in our toolshed and we caught him digging a hole in the yard with it. He said he was playing Minecraft, what’s the big deal, and why did parents freak out?
VR sets warnings have a lot to say about children — not willingly, I suspect:
- “This product is not a toy and should not be used by children under the age of 13.”
- “Prolonged use by children 13+ should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance, and multi-tasking ability.”
- “Adults should monitor children age 13+ during and after their use of the headset.”
- “Ensure that children use appropriate content.”
- “Limit children’s time using the headset.”
Samsung Gear VR: Children under the age of 13 should not use the Gear VR.
Google Daydream View: Children under the age of 13 should not use Daydream View.
Sony PlayStation VR: The VR headset is not for use by children under the age of 12.
HTC Vive: Young children should not use the product.
To comply with a feeble piece of legislation called COPPA (Children Online Privacy Protection Act), VR dealers have to admit that their product is dangerous for children. But they tell you just enough to protect themselves from being sued.
They would never tell you what could ACTUALLY happen to unaccompanied children roaming in a Virtual Reality world without rules, dressed in avatars that conceal their age.
Here are a few possibilities:
- Becoming so addicted to overstimulation that they abandon all real world pursuits — education, career, relationships, and basic hygiene
- Loathing their real self after spending time as a beautiful avatar
- Being groomed by virtual pedophiles for sexual trafficking
- Exposed to realistic graphic violence and developing PTSD or — alternatively — so desensitized that they become a real world shooter
- Losing any sense of social norms and turning into a psychopath who treats real people as VR objects
- Forgetting the laws of physics and injuring or killing themselves back in reality
- Ruining their emerging sexuality by experiencing unfiltered VR porn
Even if the consequences would not be so catastrophic, at the very least kids will compromise their imagination and creativity. My daughter once said: “I have mind movies playing in my head when I am listening to music — my imagination lights up!”.
In the Metaverse, everything has already been imagined for them.
It is said that every new technology is first commercialized, and then, pornified. Porn industry is a big investor in VR development. Oh, they are VERY interested. Imagine the possibilities — you can pay to have any kind of sex with the most beautiful avatars who would fulfill your wildest fantasies.
It would feel real. And it would be legal — no real people are involved.
Who would need real sex anymore? Correction — who would even be capable of having real sex anymore after hyper-realistic VR “experience”? Who would bother with real imperfect spouses and take the trouble to create traditional families to raise children?
The problem of overpopulation would resolve itself. Humanity will die out — naturally.
Your Avatar and the Puppet Masters
Artificial Intelligence running the Metaverse, stealthily manipulating billions of people roaming around as avatars — that’s the future we are heading into. AI is the God of Metaverse, not accountable to anyone but the exclusive technological priesthood that writes its code. Think of the possibilities, when each one of us is controlled like some virtual voodoo doll by a handful of tech elite.
Today, we are tracked with our smartphones — and this is just the beginning. Soon, biometric sensors would track your body and construct your unique identity to recognize you both in the real world and the Metaverse. Your body becomes your biometric passport.
In the Metaverse, these biometric trackers can easily become a target for a sleazy virtual used car salesman: “Mr. X, your cholesterol number just changed. Unless you buy our pill — right now — you’re gonna die!”
Imagine that Artificial Intelligence can read all your movements throughout your day in the same way it reads the movements of a video game avatar. In the game, every action of the character needs to be tracked by the algorithm to determine where to nudge them to go next.
AI would be able to nudge you in the Metaverse and in real life in the direction it wants you to go.
This has already been done in a hugely popular Pokémon Go augmented reality game, that sent users to hunt Pokémons to shops and restaurants that paid game creators for the privilege. As preoccupied gamers obediently went where algorithms told them to, it has not occurred to them that they have been victims of targeted behavioral advertising.
Elon Musk has been warning world leaders about the dangers of AI for decades, and no one listened. He said in the interview with Joe Rogan that normally there is about a 10 year delay from the introduction of technology to the law enforcing the safety features that accompany that technology. Think about cars and seat belts — a lot of people died before seat belts became a standard feature. Only a decade delay would not work with the AI when it gets out of hand — it will be too late.
So Mr. Musk decided the safer strategy for humans is to merge with AI and started his Neuralink venture that aims to put a wire in our heads — by the way, this idea has also originated from the dystopian Snow Crash novel.
Should that happen, you would not know where reality ends and the Metaverse begins.
You would also not know which ones of your thoughts are AI-generated.
There are no laws against digital mind control yet, so the only thing standing between you becoming the puppet of the puppet masters in charge of AI algorithms is their conscience. Their sense of right and wrong overruling their desire for money.
How well did that work out for Facebook that is now Meta?
What do you think are the chances that idealism is going to win over self-interest? User manipulation for profit by VR algorithms is too big of a temptation.
Which business in their right mind would voluntarily forgo the benefits of a fully programmable customer?
Every minute you spend in the Metaverse you are at the mercy of its creators who would manipulate you for profit just like Facebook did — only better. And once you unplug, the Metaverse would follow you into reality.
The potential for misusing VR, AR and AI inside our homes for commercial purposes is infinite.
Ordinary life can become a game where we are all tracked by our “smart” household objects — the Internet of Things — and rewarded with points for brushing our teeth or picking up garbage. Or clicking on the ad — sci-fi movies are already full of images of cereal boxes harassing people with commercials over breakfast.
In the movie Minority Report, every surface scans people’s eyes and immediately targets them with ads, calling them by name, following them everywhere they go.
Unless you keep your home “dumb”, there is no escape.
Welcome to Your Dystopian Future
It helps to watch some science fiction movies to visualize what’s coming.
In The Matrix, humans are plugged into the Matrix that keeps them in virtual reality forever and uses them as sources of energy. People have a vague feeling that something is off with the world, but cannot figure out what. They are slaves to the machines but completely unaware of it.
In Ready Player One, the real world is ugly and dystopian. People live in stacked-up trailers. Living conditions are appalling. The only world that really matters is the Oasis — the Metaverse where everybody lives as an avatar, looking nothing like their real self. People spend all their earnings or virtual gear.
In Avatar, the main character eventually gives up his frail human body and moves his conscience permanently into the strong and beautiful alien, leaving the human world behind.
Like the characters in these movies, we would be pulled into the Metaverse and away from reality. Our brains would get hooked on the overstimulating, ever-rewarding, fast-moving, bright and beautiful virtual world. No one would want to return to the slow and boring real existence.
The problem is that our brains are designed only for the real world by millions of years of evolution.
Deprived of its inputs, we would slowly go crazy. We would stop distinguishing between real and imaginary. Our brains would become disoriented, and our sanity would be the collateral damage of the Metaverse unreality. Think what social media does to human mental health already. Now magnify that many times over.
- We opt out from societal norms that govern civilized behavior — you can be anyone and do anything in the Metaverse
- We opt out from the laws of physics that govern reality
- We opt out from moving our bodies, healthy nutrition, sleep, face-to-face relationships
- We opt out from using our minds to make decisions, AI decides for us
- We opt out from caring about actual world problems
A virtual reality version of a coral reef would be dazzling, without any of the discomfort of real snorkeling — it’s not wet, cold, no salt water gets in your eyes. Who cares if corals are dying in the real oceans?
Free Will, Gone
We won’t have the time to attend to what’s real anymore. We still have only 24 hours a day, and our virtual priorities would take over — the creators of the Metaverse would make sure of that. We would be sucked in for all of our waking hours — and many of the sleeping ones too.
The same dark psychology that keeps us glued to our smartphones today would be supercharged. Today’s clickbait would seem like a stone age weapon. Persuasive design of VR would be a nuclear bomb. It would be irresistible. Our human weaknesses would be overpowered.
With the amazing experiences supplied by the Metaverse, we would never be bored again. Ever. Our imaginations would atrophy. Because it is boredom and stillness where human imagination is born. If you are too distracted by the magnificent virtual worlds that are readily available, there is nothing left to imagine.
We would lose what’s left of our free will, and we would not even notice. Beautiful avatars that pose as our friends would actually be advertising bots that convince us to buy or vote or do anything somebody paid for. They would press your every pain point found in your extensive data profile to manipulate you into any behavior. Targeted online ads of today would seem feeble in comparison.
The best part — you would think spending all your crypto currency on that virtual mansion was your idea all along!
Addiction as a Lifestyle Choice
We actually have a group of people today that gives us a preview of what happens to those who opt out from reality — young men addicted to video games. They drop out of college. They cannot hold down a job. They cannot form functional relationships. There were cases where their babies died of neglect while they were too busy video gaming. These young men live in their parents’ basements, gaming for 18 hours a day, peeing in a plastic bottle, and dying at the keyboard in their early 20s.
Right now society considers them for what they are — addicts, and treat them with some compassion. There are support groups, therapists, and treatment centers. But with life moving over to the Metaverse this lifestyle would be normalized. Imagine we all become like that.
Is Metaverse going to be the death of humanity?
I resolve to opt out from this dystopian future. No VR sets in my home.
I remain a free-range human.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.