Prosthetics & Selves: PTSD in virtual worlds, Lock In, & psychological health in space

This has been a great couple weeks for thinking about cyborgs, which is one of my favorite things to do :)

This week Popular Science put out an interesting short piece on the question of whether people can get post-traumatic stress disorder from interactions in virtual environments, such as video games and virtual worlds. It’s an intriguing question, because at the base of it is the issue of what constitutes a self. Where does the “self” end and the prosthetic begin? The weight of this issue is bound up the with the definition of PTSD itself: according to the American Psychiatric Association, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, one needs to experience or witness a life-threatening event.

One of the leading clinical psychology researchers investigating the application of virtual technologies for mental health care, Dr. Skip Rizzo (misidentified as a psychiatrist in the article) discounts the possibility of experiencing such an event in a virtual environment. He argues that for someone to get PTSD in a virtual environment, they would need to already be psychologically compromised. After all, no matter how dedicated we may be to our online lives and avatars, if they die our physical well-being is not endangered. Right?

This reminds me of John Scalzi’s Lock In, a very smart novel on the future of prosthetics. The story takes place in a not-too-distant US, in which a epidemic of meningitis has left millions with lock-in, the condition where they are conscious but cannot move their bodies. With the help of copious government funding, numerous tech companies build both virtual worlds and prosthetic robot bodies called “threeps” (for C-3PO)  that those who have been locked-in can access via “neural networks,” implanted brain-mind machines. While a threep is experienced as the user’s body, and can even be set to feel pain, the main characters in the book feel no more trauma at the loss of good threep through violence than they do the loss of a good car in an auto accident. The prosthetic extends the self, but it is not the self. Therefore, its loss does not constitute trauma. But is this always the case? These characters are also independently wealthy. Losing a threep sucks, but they can afford a new one. Could the loss be traumatic if the hardware that allows you to live in the world were not replaceable?

Another fascinating article I read this week is the The Guardian’s piece on the mental health of astronauts. People who spend long periods of time in outer space often start experiencing psychosis and hallucinations and this presents a major challenge to our long-term space exploration ambitions. I would have liked the article to have said a bit more about the specific kinds of interventions that are being explored to maintain sanity among those who explore the stars. Friends of mine at the Los Angeles-based company All These Worlds have been working with NASA to develop virtual environments that can provide entertainment and emotional support to astronauts on long-term missions. This work carries on a long tradition of cybernetics research. You may have heard that the term “cyborg”—so prominent in both science fiction and feminist theory—was originally a term for an astronaut. The term actually originates from a 1960 article written by engineer Manfred Clynes and psychiatrist Nathan Kline for Aeronautics magazine about the ways that the space ship would need to serve as a prosthetic for the space traveler. But a few years later Clynes wrote a follow-up piece, Cyborg II, in which he argued that astronauts needed not only physical but emotional and psychological support in space. In engineering fashion, he imagined a set of tape recordings that could take the astronaut through a set of emotional calisthenics that he called “sentics.” Though Aeronautics didn’t take Clynes seriously and refused to publish the piece, in many ways NASA’s investment in virtual worlds and other media technologies to support astronauts’ mental well-being are bringing Clynes’ dream to fruition.

The research to explore the benefits of virtual worlds for helping astronauts maintain their sanity is still underway. But one has to wonder: if virtual worlds can provide us social and emotional support while floating in a tin can in outer space, couldn’t there loss also be traumatic? Perhaps there is nothing a priori about virtual worlds that makes them peripheral. It is only a matter of dependence. As we become increasingly invested in our prosthetics, why shouldn’t  violence to them be traumatic?