I had an associate professor who didn't particularly like me. He taught Research 540 (I think that was the number, could be wrong) first semester, first year, first research course on the way to that Ph.D.
Most of the docs-to-be in my cohort bucked to become either full-time academics, grant writers, or social service agency directors. He knew I'd probably shirk all that, continue to do what I do best, maybe charge a few dollars more.
In the end, ironically, I did continue on to teach and do research, if not full time, and had an offer to direct a social service agency.
Anyway, the first day of class we tossed around dissertation ideas. The doc encouraged us to fantasize about things we wanted to study. I naively suggested Internet Addictions, explaining that I had been treating a woman who had an obsession with chat rooms. At that time what she did was called "hot chat." Her spouse didn't approve.
He chuckled at my expense (embarrassment).
"And how would you propose to get your data for that," he laughed. "How would you get a sample?"Ha, ha, ha.
I crawled back into myself and didn't say much for the rest of the semester.
So imagine my not surprise reading Is This Man Cheating on His Wife? a Friday Weekend Journal feature by Alexandra Alter.
This man is Ric Hoogestraat and he spends 12-18 hours a day on-line in a virtual video world, Second Life. There he has a virtual wife and a virtual job. He goes to virtual parties and has virtual sex. He is strong, handsome, viral. He is Someone.
And his real time marriage is in pieces. His wife attends a support group for women who have lost their spouses to video games.
Some 30 million people are involved in these virtual worlds. Their avatars, computer generated cartoon likenesses of themselves, are living the good life in a "better" world.
Ms. Alter tells us that according to researchers at the University of Washington, the brain doesn't distinguish between virtual reality and reality. Processing stimulation from a computer screen (virtual reality) is the same as processing real sensory data. Byron Reeves, a professor of communication at Stanford University, says that the social dynamics of virtual relationships mirror real life. "People feel bad when something bad happens to their avatar."
Yes. This certainly explains our compulsion to run to the computer or check our Blackberries fifteen times a day. It explains why 30 million people create cartoon alter egos on-line and are willing to live vicariously through them, interacting socially with other cartoons. We feel badly for our on-line friends and creations, we feel good for them. They make us happy, they make us sad.
And the data seems to indicate that we can't tell the difference between our virtual lives (or those of our virtual creations) and our real lives.
Well let's try to think critically for a moment, please. I for one, can tell the difference, and think you can, too.
If I couldn't then I'd have to believe that 30 million people really, really are at risk, marriages are in the toilet, parents, siblings and friends are shut out, virtual relationships are ascendant, more real and important than the flesh and blood creatures who share our bathrooms.
For sure there are such things as Internet addictions. The Chinese take kids from their homes and put them in isolated treatment for this. Kids are skipping school to play on line. I've seen it in my practice.
Games aren't for children. And they're probably dysfunctional in a lot of adult relationships
But let's think. I'm going to object with the U of W findings, provisionally, and hypothesize that most adults who have lives on line do know the difference between virtual reality and reality, and propose alternatively that we choose, believe it or not, reality. We do choose Life.
Still I have to wonder, sometimes, where our loyalties really lie. Our friends wonder, too.
Like I've worried that my real friends are jealous of my Internet relationships. (They're not). Or if FD, perhaps, wonders if I'm carrying on with one of my readers in some gathering place in the sky.
Were it not for the fact that the better sensory data isn't available on-line, he might have cause to worry. A computer screen is only marginally stimulating compared to other sensory input.
Sex therapists encourage sensate therapy for that reason. We believe that most sexual problems are curable by couple work that re-establishes connections between the body and the brain. It's recommended you enhance ALL of your senses if you're having difficulty with arousal.
As a therapist I recommend enhancing sensual stimulation for all kinds of disorders, not just sexual ones. What is aroma therapy all about, anyway? Or art therapy?
How do you do that? Try playing around with . . .
the sense of smell (rose petals, perfumes, Bvlgari if you're me),
the sense of taste (apples or apricots, chocolate, but it's your call),
the sense of touch (tell him/her for crying out loud, what feels good),
the sense of hearing (music or chirping birds on a window sill)
and the sense of sight (your choice, of course, perhaps take a look at a decent art history book or show someone your In Style, Vogue, or W).
Or dress up and go out and accomplish all five.
I'm sure that what people see on line, including virtual games can be really, really good, unbelievably entertaining, and for sure emotionally satisfying.
I don't play the games, but I'm sure they distract nicely from hum drum every day life. But you can't touch the people behind your screen. You can't smell your avatar's cologne (not yet).
So I don't think they're a threat to most of us sentient types.
I recently went to I-Tunes to download a song for a mix. I couldn't remember the name of the song and had no idea who did it, but it went something like this. . . far away for far too long. Must've been 200 songs with that lyric and I-Tunes gave up on me.
So I Googled the lyric and found a music video on YouTube with avatars, or perhaps they were only cartoons. It was fantastic. I'd never seen anything like it, visually (I live a sheltered life). Mickey Mouse and these romantic/beautiful cartoons all interacted in a virtual StarWars/Gilligans's Island music video and I said to myself, "THIS is what the kids are talking about. THIS is what's so appealing about the new graphics on the Internet. I get it."
Except I can't smell it. I can't taste it. I can't feel it. The music and visuals are nice, though. But like television, all they do is say, Gotcha'. Your computer snags only 2 of the 5 senses.
Another good dissertation for a young therapy-doc-to-be is how imagination IS the 6th sense. That would still net only make 3 out of 6 senses though for on-screen stimulation.
Our brains are SENSORY PROCESSORS. They are capable of processing ALL of the five senses. And it's true that what you don't use, you lose. And I think most of us want to use them. It's why we shop.
As good as you make him, you can't smell an avatar. You can't touch him.
And virtual friends? We can't stand in line with them at the movies, we can't kvetch about our portions at a restaurant, and we can't get an opinion on new shoes. Not really.
I'm loyal to you readers. I seriously get all warm and fuzzy and just love it when you comment, don't care what you say. I love the virtual relationship thing and surely you "read me." The definition of that expression may be grounded in our blogging culture.
But will blogging ever be better than dinner out with the girls? Come on.
I can look at pics on blogs, but the eyes will never look back. We're not sharing real tears (okay, sometimes we do, I take that back). But at the end of the day, how really satisfying is it?
And is there anything on the Internet more interesting, attractive, exciting or seductive than your guy's hands on your trapezius, deltoids, supraspinatus (shoulders), squeezing them just right, and saying, "How about you and me go to bed early and read until we fall asleep?"
That's love, Mr. Hoogestraat. Get out of Second Life. Go back to your wife and get a first.