Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 Michael Heim 1 Jan 1996

Alternate World Disorder

In Michael Heim's view both cyberspace and VR extend and enhance our powers of evolution. He even compares them to the invention of fire. But immersion in the virtual world has also its dark side. It is this that Heim explores in the following article. He even proposes a method for treatment of the illnesses that may emerge from it.


Nevenwereld Ontwrichting -

The snow assails your windshield relentlessly. The car's headlights show almost nothing about the highway under you. You can only guess where the lanes are, where the shoulder begins, where the exit ramps might be. The blizzard has so iced the road that you crawl along at 5 miles per hour, passing shaken fellow travelers whose cars sit stranded in the night, headlights dim, on both sides of the road.

Hours later, you flop exhausted on the motel bed, tension tightening your shoulder and forehead muscles. You close your eyes. On the back of your eyelids, you see again, in startlingly exact detail, the swirling snowflakes, the headlights, the windshield wipers fighting the moisture – all in slow motion this very minute. Such flashbacks, waking nightmares with lucidity, typically belong to the first experiences with virtual reality technology. Subtract the terror and sore muscles and you get an idea of how it feels after spending an hour or two in a virtual environment. Even the next day, your optical nerves preserve the virtual world, so you can summon it with the slightest effort – or sometimes experience unsummoned flashes of virtual reality. us pilots in the Persian Gulf War practiced mission rehearsals in virtual reality. They spoke of deja-vu experiences during their actual missions. Not only during the missions, but afterwards too, their visual and auditory memories mix virtual and actual.

Body Amnesia

I investigated this dark side of vr in my recent book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 1993). Research on pilots' experiences led me to develop the notions of Alternate World Syndrome and Alternate World Disorder as part of the dark side of this emergent technology. Presence, the MIT journal for teleoperation and Virtual Reality, carried numerous discussions of vr as it relates to simulator sickness (Volume 1, number 3). Many of the questions about vr sickness remain unanswered and will remain so until we have more experience with more advanced hardware. Until then, we can speculate on what will surely be an important part of the health issues of the coming century.

The two notions of aws and awd came by way of analogy with the widely known phenomenon of simulator sickness. Pilots get nauseous and disoriented whenever the perceived motion of the simulator gets out of sync with the actual physical movement of the pilot's body. Even though the pilot may not consciously notice the discrepancy, the pilot's autonomic nervous system reacts to the 'barfogenic zone'. By analogy, the vr systems with head-mounted displays often create a time lag between the user's head movements and the motion registered on the computer displays. The discrepancy creates an uneasy feeling.

If the user spends hours in a virtual reality system, the discrepancy shifts to another level. On that level, the lag is no longer between head-mounted display and user's eye movement. (The latest systems have smoother hardware.) A deeper problemarises. The lag is not between the body functioning within the computer system but between the virtual body and the biological body in general. The lag is no longer synchronous within the virtual experience but rather diachronic. The lag occurs when the virtual world later intrudes on the actual world, or vice versa. AWS is simulator sickness writ large. aws is technology sickness, a lag between the natural and artificial environments.

AWS comes from immersion in the virtual world. Immersion is the key feature of vr systems. The technology immerses the user in the entities and events of the computer-generated world. During immersion, the user's nervous system undergoes re-calibration and re-training to respond to the virtual environment. But this adaptation to technology cannot proceed smoothly when the virtual world continues to inject hallucinatory afterimages in the primary world.

Observe someone coming out of a vr system. Just watch the first hand movements. Invariably, the user stands in place, takes in the surroundings, and uses hands to pat torso and buttocks -- as if to secure a firm landing and a return to presence in the primary body. Returning from the virtual world,the user feels a lag. The lag is the discrepancy between the virtual and the biological body. The virtual body still lingers in the afterimages and the newly formed neural pathways while the primary body resumes its involvement in the actual, non-virtual world.

A conflict of attention, not unlike jet lag, arises between the cyberbody and the biobody. The conflict reveals an ontological rift where the felt world swings out of kilter. Even experienced users feel the conflict. Dr. Stephen Ellis, scientist at NASA/Ames and at the UC Berkeley School of Optics, says that his work in vr often has him unconsciously gesturing in the primary world in ways that function in the virtual world. He points a finger half expecting to fly (as his cyberbody does under the conventions of the virtual world). The biobody adapts to the cyberworld and then needs to be re-calibrated for the primary world.

In The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, I defined AWS (Alternate World Syndrome) as an acute form of body amnesia occurring in vr users. awd (Alternate World Disorder) I defined as a chronic form of AWS where frequent virtuality leaves the user with a serious rupture of the kinesthetic from the visual senses of self-identity. With Alternate World Disorder, images and expectations from an alternate world so distort our functioning in the current world, that we have an increased likelihood of making errors. The virtual world obtrudes upon our functioning in the primary world, and vice versa. Responses deeply ingrained in the one world fail to correspond to the other world. AWD shows the human being merging, yet still out of phase, with the machine.

The ufo Experience

Virtual reality is rapidly becoming a key for understanding contemporary culture. It may reveal more about our contemporary lives and afflictions than traditional psychiatry. Years ago, philosophers of civilization like John Dewey noticed an internecine warfare between the functions of the brain/nervous system and the functions of digestion, circulation, and respiration. They saw technology afflicting us not so much as external HAL or Frankenstein monsters but as a source of inner conflict brought by the complexity of this stage of human evolution. Write this conflict large and you have aws and awd.

UFO abduction belongs, I think, to the current stage of our evolutionary destiny. It belongs to the rocky marriage of human and technology. The psychopathology of abduction reveals another aspect of what is writ large in aws and awd. The hallucinatory intrusion of technology belongs to the unsteady, out-of-phase grafting of technology on the human species. Virtual Reality gives us a clue to the UFO experience because vr represents the culmination of the artificial, technology-driven world which we already inhabit but which we have not yet assimilated. We still experience our technological selves as alien visitors.

Carl Jung was only partly right. When Jung considered ufos, he applied his psychology of personal integration. The UFO, he thought, represents the aspirations of the individual to become whole, and the alien visitors are likewise symbols of the ascent to a richer, more complete personal life -- much like medieval angels. Jung saw the whole panoply of spiritual symbols recurring in the twentieth century, not under the auspices of the Church, but in the dreams and late night experiences of secular modern man, whom Jung thought of as rootless and intellectualized. Jung looked back into the spiritual traditions of the past and postulated an eternal pantheon of archetypes. Today's visitation was another version of yesterday's Visitation. Jung caught the influence of the past on the present. What Jung missed was the influence of the future on the present.

Today we are influenced by the technology of the future. We are drawn forward by it as an internal telos or hidden goal. We are evolving, and our evolution is about to inscribe in us a technological destiny, an intimate relationship to technical, information systems. The technological person of our future evolution influences us now by summoning us forward, and that summons stirs in us anxiety as well as hope and awe. The UFO experience derives as much from a profound techno-anxiety as it does from the urgings of psychic archetypes from the past experiences of the human species. The unknown homo technicus stands in the distance of our peripheral vision and haunts us as an alien intelligence. The Unidentified Flying Object is as much our future self as it is the recurring story of the mythic past.

While Jung might have overlooked our evolutionary destiny, his search for the internal correlate of outer experience remains important in understanding cyberspace and virtual reality. For the latter continue an alchemical tradition of transforming reality through visualization. Both cyberspace and vr extend and enhance our powers of evolution. They are so powerful that they may be fruitfully comparison with the invention of fire. Fire was the origin of our division of labor (tending the fire, controlling it, working by the fire) as well as of our meditative and concentrative powers (watching the flickering flames at night, acknowledging the danger from the camp fire, resting in a bright circle where frightening animals fear to enter). Fire and cyberspace both helped humans build memory palaces in the mind.

So much has digital reality spread across our universe that now cyberspace is rapidly encompassing outer space. At NASA, the exploration of outer space is becoming indistinguishable from electronic adventure. Virtual reality allow cybernauts to explore the terrain of Mars. Soon, vr systems linked to telerobotic vehicles will provide real-time interaction with many parts of the planetary system. The dream of exploring outer space may take place both inside and outside the VR dream machine.

In the glossary to The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, under the entry 'virtual reality' I wrote the following: Virtual Reality convinces the participant that he or she is actually in another place, by substituting the normal sensory input received by the participant with information produced by a computer (p. 180). The psychiatrist, Robert Romanyshyn, recently made an important point by altering my definition slightly. He made two substitutions: Dreams (instead of vr technology) convince the participant that he or she is actually in another place, by substituting the normal sensory input received by the participant with unconscious wishes and desires (instead of information produced by a computer). In other words, vr parallels our dream life.

Tai Chi

My suggestions for treating out-of-phase victims of aws and awd center around somatic movement. My work as a teacher of Tai Chi Chuan convinces me that certain Asian traditions have preserved some most effective techniques for re-integrating the conscious mind with the primary body. On many occasions, I have urged vr developers to build into their systems a Tai Chi decompression chamber. A certain number of hours spent in virtual worlds should be balanced by a corresponding number of minutes moving under the direction of a virtual Tai Chi master. Treatments for AWS or AWD can range from de-linking exercises in cyberspace to more demanding disciplines, such as the daily practice of Tai Chi or Yoga. These disciplines, modified for homo technicus, can restore the integrity of somatic experience.

Human presence will be stretched more and more in the coming century. Jung was right in seeing the human task as one of balance, of continually seeking integrity of feeling and intellect, of assimilating all experience into a satisfying whole. In the fascination and pain of the ufo experience, we see only the first glimpses of our ultimate merger with technology. As we proceed with the merger, we should actively embrace the disciplines that can restore us to balance and heal our inner divisions.

Michael Heim can be reached on the Internet at: or