Communication and emotion

Above and beyond all else, Second Life is a communication environment second to none. It differs from all other internet communication environments because it brings into play a wide range of emotions that are generally considered only possible in real life situations.

One of the biggest shocks to many people new to Second Life is how easy it is to become emotionally attached to someone. Although it is only an avatar interacting with another avatar, the emotions that can be aroused are identical to those in real life. It is very common for people to meet through their Second Life avatars and experience feelings of genuine friendship, even love and affection. So common is this that there are many thriving Second Life marriage facilities. To someone without any experience of second life this would appear to be absolute lunacy, but once you have been around a while in Second Life and communicated with a few other avatars, it doesn't seem strange at all.

There is a logical explanation for this phenomenon, which can be explained by recent research into how the human brain functions. It seems that emotions are induced automatically before other areas of the brain can rationalise them. On the subject of NEUROBIOLOGY OF EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS Antonio Damasio (University of Iowa, US) discusses the biological basis of emotions, the author makes the following points:


1) The groundwork for the science of emotions was laid down over 100 years ago, but neuroscience has for the most part avoided the problem until recently. It is not usually appreciated that the probable cause of the neglect of the topic was the improper distinction between the concepts of emotion and feelings.


 2) Some traits of feelings -- their subjective nature, the fact that they are private, hidden from view, and often difficult to analyze -- were in the past projected onto emotions, so that emotions too were deemed subjective, private, hidden, and elusive. This conflation of the two concepts persists, as does the idea that the neurobiology of feelings is out of reach.


3) An emotion, be it happiness or sadness, embarrassment or pride, is a patterned collection of chemical and neural responses produced by the brain when it detects the presence of an emotionally competent stimulus -- an object or situation, for example. The processing of the stimulus may be conscious, but it need not be, as the responses are engendered automatically.


4) The main target of an emotional response is the body -- the "internal milieu", the viscera and the musculoskeletal system -- but there are also identifiable targets within the brain itself. The result of the body-targeting responses is the creation of an emotional state -- involving adjustments in homeostatic balance -- as well as the enactment of specific behaviors, such as freezing or fight-or-flight, and the production of particular facial expressions.


 5) A working definition of "feelings" is a different matter. Feelings are the mental representation of the physiological changes that characterize emotions. Because feelings are the direct consequences of emotions, the elucidation of emotional neurobiology opens the way to elucidating the neurobiology of feelings.

Advances in functional brain imaging, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have permitted investigation of the brain activity caused by emotions in healthy people.Some of the more advanced tools, such as the fMRI, allow researchers to actually watch activity levels in specific brain regions as people engage in various emotive situations. It is now generally accepted that emotions are a primitive response mechanism that occurs instantaneously and before being subjected to rational analysis by other parts of the brain.

To further explain why Second Life can emulate a form of real life to people it is worth noting that what we see and experience in real life is not actually a reality either.

Only fairly recently, researchers have discovered that the brain doesn't work in the way it was generally accepted in the twentieth century. The brain doesn't actually see any true reality. The light entering the eyes is turned into neurological signals that simply trigger areas of the brain to produce it's own "vision" of what we see. This is best described by Walter J. Freeman, a highly regarded pioneer of dynamical systems, while teaching as a Professor of the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley. He summarized his research and views in a 1995 book Societies of Brains: A Study in the Neuroscience of Love and Hate. In this he noted:

"I was tracing the path taken by neural activity that accompanied and followed a sensory stimulus in brains of rabbits. I traced it from the sensory receptors into the cerebral cortex and there found that the activity vanished, just like the rabbit down the rabbit hole in "Alice and Wonderland." What appeared in place of the stimulus-evoked activity was a new pattern of cortical activity that was created by the rabbit brain. My students and I first noticed this anomaly in the olfactory system and in looking elsewhere we found it in the visual, auditory, and somatic cortices, too. In all the systems the traces of stimuli seemed to be replaced by constructions of neural activity, which lacked invariance with respect to the stimuli that triggered them. The conclusion seemed compelling. The only knowledge that the rabbit could have of the world outside itself was what it had made in its own brain."

The point to note is that communication using avatars in a virtual world elicits strong emotional responses similar to those experienced in the Real World. This applies not only in friendship and romantic situations, but in all situations - including business and technical discussion. For this reason communication in Second Life shouldn't be casual, it should be as strategically conducted as if it were taking place in Real Life.

Appearance is important, profile is important, credibility is important. Things like honor, ethics, honesty, reliability and manner of chat is just as important as in the real world.

Millions of dollars are spent each year in Second Life because people need to present themselves suitably. Clothing and appearance might be changed to suit the nature of the venue or the person they are meeting. Meetings between avatars are often taken place at one or other of the avatars residences. Residences (or virtual office environments), just like appearances, are a refection on the avatar owners personality: they offer many psychological clues that are consciously or unconsciously used to judge a person's character. It all sounds very superficial, but remember that the emotional part of the brain is largely instinctive and works independent of rationality.

Making friends

You tend to meet so many different people in Second Life that it impossible to remember them all. The convention is that if a casual meeting suggests there might be a mutual interest and further meetings desirable, one or other of the avatars offers friendship. If the offer is accepted the name of each is placed in the other's list of friends.

Avatars names in a 'Friends' list is a vital aid to contact and communication in Second Life. The list allows you to see which friends are on line; allows you to chat with them wherever they are in Second Life (IM), allows you to transport them to wherever you are; read their profile and also add notes to their profile so that you can remember who they are.

This element of Second life is a very powerful aspect of Second Life which is not fully appreciated. Through this system every avatar is less than six friendship links between any other avatar. This allows information to quickly move through the community as a whole (for an explanation of this phenomenon see: A surprise property of the connected world).

Having lists of friends is more than just a social convenience. A strategic friendship list allows you to quickly access the knowledge and expertise of others, so that in any problem area you can get the assistance of a friend to help or give advice (see: An individual within an information space). In this way people in Second Life can effectively create their own virtual teams in order to engage in projects or enterprises that need a combination of different skills and knowhow.

Peter Small (SL: Eliver Rang)

December 2007