Can you trust your own experience?

Does that mountain look steep to you? It depends on how heavy your backpack feels.

Does that mountain look steep to you? It depends on how heavy your backpack feels.

Still convinced that you can trust your own experience?  The behaviors of people using VR or AR are affected by characteristics and timing factors that you might not think would affect them. VR and AR designers have tremendous opportunities to influence people's experiences and subsequent beliefs about those experiences.  The focus of the Extended Mind blog is persuading people that their emotions and decisions are influenced by cues from the environment and the ways that they move their body.  

Here's a short (5 minute) video that explains how humans rely on cues that come in from the environment that aren't sight, hearing, taste, touch, or smell.  [Click here if the embedded link is not working.]

It’s always a combination of many senses that is producing your experience of consciousness at any time.  

Here's a transcript of the most important part of the video for VR/AR designers.  From Barry C. Smith:

We are not as good as learning about our experiences as we think that we are…Many of these senses are occurring at the same time and talking to one another.  Take sight for example, you think that you couldn’t confuse seeing with another sense and yet it’s easily manipulated by one of your other senses.  Next time you sit on an airplane…look along the cabin as you sit on the ground and you’ll see everything in relation to you.  Now, look again when you’re in the climb and you’ve taken off.  It will now look as if the front of the cabin is higher than you.  Now how can it look that way because you’re in exactly the same optical/visual relationship to everything in the cabin.  So what we know is that because of your sense of balance and your ear canals telling you that you’re tilting backwards and also perhaps the rush in the chest feeling the engines that’s actually influencing the visual scene and it’s changing the visual scene.

Once you have a multisensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how we are in touch with ourselves and how we know about ourselves that we ordinarily do.
— Barry C. Smith

Additional evidence shows that human perceptions are influenced by sensory information in unexpected ways.  In one psychology study, researchers put backpacks on students and then asked them to guess the steepness of a hill.  They manipulated how heavy or light the backpacks were.  The people who wore the heavy backpack judged the same hill as more steep.  In the same study, the other people to judge the hill as more steep were those who were fatigued, out of shape, or elderly.  That means that putting a heavy backpack on people results in the same steepness evaluations as someone in declining health!  That's a surprising result if you would anticipate that the steepness of the hill would be a constant across many different types of people.  

Takeaways for VR/AR designers are:

  • People tend to rely on their own experiences, but they do not have full conscious access to all of their experiences and their judgments.
  • People have more than five senses to provide them sensory information.
  • People can experience the same digital environment in many different ways. Test your experience with a diverse group of people to gather a range of perspectives.  

Further Reading

Bhalla, M., & Proffitt, D. R. (1999). Visual–motor recalibration in geographical slant perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(4), 1076.

Barry C. Smith. Aristotle was wrong and so are we: there are far more than five senses. Aeon Video October 31, 2016