Friday, 5 February 2010

Lecture report - Models of the Mind

This was a lecture report written in 1992 for the Psi Researcher (now known as the Paranormal Review), the magazine of the Society for Psychical Research. For some reason it wasn't used because the report that appeared was done by Rosemary Dinnage (Psi Researcher No. 6, p.18). There must have been some confusion because I wrote the report for the lecture the week before, given by Colin Wilson. Eighteen years late, but here is my report on Charles Tart's lecture in which he talks about this newfangled virtual reality thing. The concluding reference to Arthur Ellison and reality as a mental construct was a joke because Arthur was a famous philosophical idealist.

Models of the Mind

An extra lecture had been squeezed into the programme to take advantage of Charles Tart's visit to Europe. On 26 June 1992 he addressed the Society on the subject of models of the mind, paying particular attention to the opportunities offered by the nascent technology of Virtual Reality.

Dr Tart began, though, on an autobiographical note, outlining the religious crisis he had had experienced as a teenager. He discovered in psychical research a critical approach which he found congenial. Later he coined the term "Transpersonal Psychology" as a method of understanding the way the mind works. Designed to go beyond 'ordinary' psychology, being almost synonymous with spirituality, it was distinct from religion, which Dr Tart categorised as pertaining to a social system. Instead it related more to feelings people have of something greater than themselves, such as near death and peak experiences.

The transpersonal approach requires the use of psychical research data, which lays it open to charges by philosophical monists of not being scientific. These take a reductionist approach to the mind-body problem, but it could be argued against them that such an approach can never give an adequate account. Models of mind are usually based on technologies available at the time, for example the Freudian hydraulic approach, and later metaphors based on the telephone and then the digital computer. Computer-generated Virtual Reality is the latest such metaphor, and can be used to explore mind-body issues.

In understanding who one is, it is possible to infer identity from the fact that one can interact with one's body, and that it is familiar and capable of being controlled. This is "Mind Embodied" (or ME! - the exclamation mark to acknowledge how precious it is). This can be termed the "Ecological Self", as it has evolved to perform a self-preserving function. It is a state, however, which one can change, for example in the out-of-body experience (OBE). A kind of OBE is "Telepresence", and Dr Tart described a robot which mimics the actions of its operator so faithfully that a human can become identified with the machine to the extent that seeing him/herself on a TV monitor can seem like watching a stranger.

A further step is Virtual Reality, a fictional, computerised world which nonetheless can seem real. The subject wears a helmet fitted with a TV screen filling the entire visual field, and with a sensor monitoring the person's position; the scene on the screen will move according to the head's movements, giving the illusion that it is the wearer who is moving. In addition, the user wears a "data glove" covered in fibre optics, also with a position sensor (suits with sensors all over them to track the whole body's actions are becoming increasingly common). Thus equipped, a reality is generated by computer which is "virtual" in the sense that it is 'unreal', yet for the person immersed in it, it becomes reality, to the extent that one feels that one can fly - the laws of this environment take over from the real world.

This approach can provide support for a dualistic model, and to this end Dr Tart distinguished two senses of virtual reality, computer-generated and biological-psychological. We live in the second, it seems real and we identify with it, but it is still virtual in that it is not a complete picture. It is composed of two separate regions, the transpersonal and the physical, with psi processes mediating between the two. In this way mind influences the body by means of auto-PK, and can be extended to include clairvoyance and telepathy. These processes may seem unusual, but they are part of ordinary life.

Computer-generated virtual reality adds another dimension to the model. The virtual reality paraphernalia acts as a bridge between the physical world and the virtual world, and in which ME! is taken to a higher order, "Mind Embodied embodied". This provides a new perspective on the biological-psychological realm in which various states of consciousness can be modelled, and offers a potential tool for psychical research.

The discussion kicked off with a reference to the film "Lawnmower Man", and the possibility that the subject of virtual reality might disappear under a mountain of hype. Dr Tart defended its use in modelling consciousness. Little work has been done by psychologists, having mainly been the province of engineers, and consequently its potential has been underutilised. For example, it has been found that users sometimes have lucid dreams afterwards, and Dr Tart agreed that it might be possible that two individuals sharing the same virtual reality could develop telepathy, due to the way in which it breaks through everyday inhibitions. It could even be programmed to emulate a spiritual experience, and thus provide a link with the transpersonal.

Another criticism was that human-machine interaction could be pathological, producing couch potatoes rather than an evolutionary leap. Dr Tart responded that the technology was neutral, and could be used for good or ill. On the issue of second-order modelling, it was acknowledged that psychical research models might themselves be modelled, but this raised the problem of which models should be chosen. In summary, Dr Tart suggested that Eastern mysticism does not take 'reality' seriously. Similarly, an idealist might argue that reality itself is constructed, and is therefore a virtual reality - a view with which the proceedings' chairman, Professor Ellison, heartily concurred.