In David Chalmer’s essay The Virtual and the Real, he investigates the correlation between experiences that occur in virtual and non-virtual worlds. This blog post will focus on one of the claims that Chalmer’s makes, that “Virtual experiences of a digital world can be about as valuable as non-virtual experiences of a non-digital world.” I will also discuss why I believe that the virtual fictionalist claim that “virtual experiences have the limited sort of value that engagement with fiction has” is false, and that virtual reality offers opportunities for valuable experiences that non-virtual reality cannot.

Research conducted at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands this past year focuses specifically on ways of creating valuable experiences in virtual reality for patients with Anorexia Nervosa. A key symptom of anorexia nervosa is a “disturbed body representation: Even though patients are underweight,they experience their body as being too fat.” This specific type of experience in patients with anorexia nervosa is the condition that is also linked to its development and often relapse in many patients. One of the many challenges of the condition, is that it is “It is very difficult treat, and often persists after otherwise successful treatment.”

If the avatar is truly an extension of the physical body, as Chalmers suggests, it would then follow that we could use virtual reality to augment this perception with the purpose of creating a positive experience for patients with anorexia nervosa. This is exactly what the researchers at the University of Utrecht sought to do.

Patients were first asked to estimate the size of their body, and were then invited to experience a “Full Body Illusion” in virtual reality, where “participants experienced ownership over an entire virtual body in VR after synchronous visuo-tactile stimulation of the actual and virtual body.” After the simulation, a majority of participants had a lasting change in the way that they estimated their body size, suggesting that these types of virtual experiences offer ways for medical professionals and researchers to intervene in ways that are not possible in non-virtual experiences.

Keizer, Anouk, et al. “A Virtual Reality Full Body Illusion Improves Body Image Disturbance in Anorexia Nervosa.” Plos ONE, vol. 11, no. 10, 06 Oct. 2016, pp. 1-21. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163921.