May 31, 2010

Virginia Woolf's Last Letter

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th Century, having produced several novels, short stories, and diaries. A number of traumatic events in her life, such as the death of her parents in her teens and sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brothers, may have contributed to the depression that plagued her throughout her life. Although her literary output remains largely unaffected, she was subject to periodic mood swings and associated illnesses until her suicide at age 59.

In a letter to her husband, regarded as her suicide note, she revealed a glimpse of life as a voice-hearer:




I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.


May 16, 2010

When a Man becomes a Woman

Interesting article in The Guardian the other day, about how virtual reality (VR) can be used in certian circumstances to change a male's sense of self into that of a woman's, the perceived experience being so powerful that the men reacted quite sharply (i.e. like a woman) to a slap. Patronising as that sounds, the state of mind does remain an interesting feature and it reminded me of a particular religious tradition that urges it's male adherents to emulate a type of female consciousness. Perhaps I may write more on this later, here's the article for now:

Virtual reality used to transfer men's minds into a woman's body

Researchers projected men's sense of self into a virtual reality woman, changing the way they behaved and thought

* Ian Sample
*, Wednesday 12 May 2010 22.00 BST

Scientists have transferred men's minds into a virtual woman's body in an experiment that could enlighten the prejudiced and shed light on how humans distinguish themselves from others.

In a study at Barcelona University, men donned a virtual reality (VR) headset that allowed them to see and hear the world as a female character. When they looked down they could even see their new body and clothes.

The "body-swapping" effect was so convincing that the men's sense of self was transferred into the virtual woman, causing them to react reflexively to events in the virtual world in which they were immersed.

Men who took part in the experiment reported feeling as though they occupied the woman's body and even gasped and flinched when she was slapped by another character in the virtual world.

"This work opens up another avenue for virtual reality, which is not just to transform your sense of place, but also your sense of self," said Mel Slater, a virtual reality researcher at the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies and University College London. "There isn't any other technology that allows you to look down and see another body that isn't yours and give you the illusion that it is," he said.

"If you can temporarily give people the illusion that their bodies are different, then the evidence suggests it also affects their behaviour and the way they think. They can have new experiences: a person who is thin can know what it's like to be fat. A man can have an experience of what it's like to be a woman."

In the study, 24 men took turns wearing a VR headset that immersed them in a virtual room. Some men saw the virtual environment through the eyes of a female character who was sitting down, while others had a viewpoint that was just to the side of her.

During the experiment, a second virtual female approached and appeared to rub the person's shoulder or arm. Researchers in the lab mimicked this sensation in the real world for some of the volunteers by rubbing their shoulder or arm, helping to reinforce their feeling of occupying the character's body.

Later in the study, the second character lashed out and slapped the face of the character the men were playing. "Their reaction was immediate," said Slater. "They would take in a quick breath and maybe move their head to one side. Some moved their whole bodies. The more people reported being in the girl's body, the stronger physical reaction they had."

Sensors on the men's bodies showed their heart rates fell sharply for a few seconds and then ramped up – a classic response to a perceived attack.

As expected, the body swapping effect was felt more keenly by men who saw their virtual world through the female character's eyes than those whose viewpoint was slightly to one side of her. In all cases, the feeling was temporary and lasted only as long as the study.

The study, which appears in the online science journal PLoS One, suggests that our minds have a very fluid picture of our bodies. The research is expected to shed light on the thorny neuroscientific puzzle of how our brain tells the difference between a part of our own body, and something else in the wider world.

The work might also improve rehabilitation for patients who have experienced strokes and other medical problems by immersing them in a world that helps them to use their bodies to the full again.