Metaverse and Mental Health With Dr. Lincoln Stoller
August 9, 2022
MP chatted with Lincoln Stoller, PhD, CHt, CCPCPr-candidate, who took up mountaineering in high school, explored meditation and psychedelics in college, and earned a doctorate in quantum physics in Texas. He ran a business automation company in New York customizing accounting software before moving back into psychology to offer computer-based brain feedback training. He's now a registered clinical counselor and hypnotherapist in private practice in British Columbia, Canada.
Metaverse vs. Multiverse
Before discussing the Metaverse, let's distinguish it from the Multiverse. While wholly different, the concepts stimulate each other.
The multiverse, an idea that emerges from science fiction, proposes the existence of simultaneous, alternative realities. Despite the claim by some that this has scientific credibility, it doesn't (Ellis, 2014). Religious conceptions of the Multiverse assert all perceived realities are illusions, and true reality is intellectually unknowable (Hrodrigues, 2015). Finally, there is the social meme of creating alternate identities using virtual reality (VR) software and augmented reality (AR) hardware, as is now being done using multiplayer computer games and motion-sensitive video headsets (LeBlanc, 2022).
What's new about the Metaverse is the potential for greater immersion, support for dialog rather than monolog, direct connection over any distance, automatic translation across languages, and the opportunity to participate and change the narrative rather than simply following along. - Lincoln Stoller, PhD, CHt, CCPCPr-candidate
This third definition of the Multiverse shares features with the Metaverse (Carter, 2022). While computer games offer the most dramatic use of virtual reality (Lang, 2020), this technology allows everyone to create alternate personalities in virtual social contexts. In the Metaverse, people can invest in, profit from, and inhabit realities that obey alternate social and physical laws.
According to the marketing firm ICUC.Social (2022), the Metaverse consists of virtual reality, augmented reality, virtual worlds, digital economies, digital personas, and virtual meeting rooms. A more succinct definition of the Metaverse is a virtual forum for communication and collaboration that transcends distance and extends imagination.
This is similar to existing alternate realities such as cinema, radio, television, live performance, and literature. What's new about the Metaverse is the potential for greater immersion, support for dialog rather than monolog, direct connection over any distance, automatic translation across languages, and the opportunity to participate and change the narrative rather than simply following along.
The Metaverse is a new venue for storytelling, perhaps as revolutionary as the printing press and more revolutionary than television or cinema. Its first attraction is for its entertainment value. Its second attraction, which depends on the first, is as a means of advertising. But its most important effect, to see it from a Biblical angle, is to reassemble the Tower of Babel, which was destroyed by an offended God for its attempt to reach the heavens.
Considering social interaction as just a form of advertising minimizes the potential of the Metaverse, which aims to further communication and productivity. Each of these legs portends significant changes in how we communicate, work, and influence each other.
"Nobody knows what Metaverse really means, save for it being a next step in all things digital. What happens next to the Metaverse—and even if it ever becomes a recognizable thing—is anyone’s guess." - Jamie Carter (2022)
Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Good)
How will the Metaverse empower socially repressed groups, and how can such empowerment affect those group members’ mental health?
In cyberspace, importance is measured by engagement, and power is measured in terms of tradable resources, where resources could be votes, money, or influence. Every group is different, but repressed groups, in contrast with minority groups, are groups that either have not had, don't know how to use, or don't have access to power.
Cyberspace offers new opportunities for presentation, but whether repressed groups take advantage of these opportunities depends both on their ability to act collectively and their access to digital resources. If they can take advantage, then they can amplify their presence, appeal, and alliances. But if their repression extends into cyberspace, then their disadvantage will also.
The more pertinent question may be how the Metaverse will impact the balance between minorities and majorities. Active minorities will leverage new opportunities to a greater extent than inactive majorities. As a result, they can achieve greater reach, visibility, and control and, in that way, change the balance.
How can the Metaverse empower individuals to be honest and open about who they are, and how can such empowerment affect an entire generation’s mental health?
Honesty has many levels, and honesty's greatest impact is felt when all its elements are expressed, not only the acceptable or conventional attitudes. Depending on who's listening, honesty has different impacts.
Repressed ideas emerge when they can be expressed with support and without fear. These are usually “not good” feelings, but their release and consideration can be good.
Repressed honesty is often exploitative in the sense of taking advantage of unexpected circumstances. Honest expression can be a revelation leading toward self-understanding but is more often seen as disruptive. In this context, the Metaverse can provide a platform for the expression of what's confusing, antisocial, and undeveloped.
My son and his 11-year-old friends spend hours conversing and sending each other links and pictures over Discord—a real-time chat platform—while they play their avatars in MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games). Most of them behave badly by repeatedly betraying, deceiving, insulting, and indulging in behaviors adults have told them to suppress.
The most poorly behaved kids broadcast soft-core porn to the group. It could be worse, and, in other cases, it probably is. There is significant age and gender mixing, as one would expect when all of a family's children are following each other in an almost endless group event. In my son's case, his core group of seven boys range in age from 8 to 13, along with one young girl.
When these contests are contained, they have the same kind of salutary effect as a family argument. The more reasonable kids achieve alliance, while the less reasonable and more troubled kids do not. I listen, but I do not watch, and I only comment to my son when he's offline. Most of my comments focus on where and how he should set his boundaries and how he might better respond to the challenges of others.
Because these conversations between players—often yelling matches—can be overheard by parents, they are an opportunity for parents to help their kids. I suspect many parents are not taking advantage of this window into their children's personal lives. They are missing an important opportunity.
Can the Metaverse effectively serve as a medium through which socially distanced individuals develop meaningful connections, and, if so, how can this benefit those individuals?
The extent to which parents ask this question reflects the degree to which they're out of touch, and parents are traditionally out of touch with their children. The Metaverse brings the outside world into the home. It provides a great opportunity for parents to mentor their children.
Since before I began researching my books on learning 15 years ago (Stoller, 2019, 2021a, 2021b), adolescents had been playing MMORPGs and establishing alliances with kids from other countries and cultures. Some of the kids I interviewed said their best friends were people they'd never met in person. This was a time when all communication was done through online avatars who communicated through game action and text messages, but lacked the real-time audio and video chat that's available today.
Outside a family setting, the connections made possible by cyberspace are only quantitatively different from the personal connections we've always made. While a diversity of connections are now possible, few take advantage of it.
I have a mail list of 1,500 and another 5,000 social media "friends." I host free, open online meetings every month on topics pertinent to mental health, relationships, and personal growth. Those who attend appreciate these meetings and endorse the meetings to others, yet I rarely get more than four attendees and only one or two new people at each session.
Today's adults are not adept at presenting themselves publicly through virtual connections. This may be because they have not had the chance to explore and establish the kind of unsupervised boundaries that many of today's kids are learning.
I discern three types of people among those who attend my meetings:
Those who are comfortable and can follow the rhythm of the conversation without crowding or alienating others.
Those who must express their opinions, regardless of how poorly they communicate.
Those who are too hesitant to express their opinions.
It's not the medium of cyberspace that deserves credit or blame, and it's not the Metaverse that will instruct people in virtual communication skills. The Metaverse presents this opportunity, but people need to learn a form of communication that is both looser, demands more attention, and whose boundaries are more easily violated.
This is a human learning situation that's like group therapy—it's identical to group therapy. Effective communication through virtual channels is a learned skill. People who are communication-disabled, including those who don't know what to say and those who are exploitative, will have a harder time learning and a more difficult experience in cyberspace. These are just the people who need to learn these skills, and they’ll need help in making and learning from their errors.
You might say that we need a new form of communication training, which schools and teachers might provide. However, I am averse to both schools and teachers, and these are the situations where institutionalized education fails (Lynch, 2022). What is needed is a form of personal and sufficiently intimate learning to allow fears and frustrations to be recognized and explored.
Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Bad)
How will the Metaverse provide the means through which social bullying continues, and can the interactivity of the Metaverse exacerbate the mental anguish experienced by those being bullied? If yes, how? If not, why not?
The Multiverse's greatest potential is in furthering individual self-knowledge. Its most negative use is for character assassination, or perhaps actual assassination. Much of this potential has yet to be made available, and many of the dangers are consequences of poor education. These will resolve themselves as people master this new form of communication.
Bullying is a consequence of bad socialization, for which schools are partly responsible. Bullying results from schools' tradition of enforcing conformity, repressing frustration, and fragmenting the community. As schools change and these traditions hopefully dissolve, this kind of prison-yard violence will be eliminated through the more active forms of community learning.
What we see now, and what jeopardizes adolescents, is the release of repressed anger in cyberspace. To deal with bullying, which I believe spans the gamut from depression to mass shootings, we need to reform schools and communities. While this risks creating small pools of extremism, it will support people as they move between communities and age groups.
The danger is greatest for people who victimize themselves. These are people who see themselves as inferior and those for whom self-harm is redemptive. These weaknesses can be fatal in exploitative groups, such as real or virtual gangs and cliques.
The solution is not authoritarian oversight and repression. It's individual attention and the involvement of those who care. Schools cannot provide this, but families and communities can.
Schools were initially conceived as a way to direct culture and ideology along political lines (Cohan & Howlett, 2019). The Metaverse is making this school model more toxic. At the same time, the Metaverse is providing the opportunity for families and communities to reclaim their role in guiding, supporting, and mentoring people on the margins and kids who are navigating the gauntlet of growing up.
How can the Metaverse’s empowerment of self-expression backfire and result in greater repression?
Socially repressive regimes are showing us how the Metaverse can be used to limit information, thought, and development. At the same time, socially lenient regimes demonstrate how the neglect of standards and the misuse of authority can polarize society and create misguided factions, with dire results.
Effective use of the Metaverse requires something different from what these two models provide. It's easy to see that the space between them is the area of personal responsibility.
What we used to see as exclusive—repression on one hand and democracy on the other—reveals little guidance for personal growth and social evolution. It's not enough to have the choice of authoritarianism versus democracy; personal responsibility and social altruism must be added. Without these, our repressed tendencies explode, and we have no wisdom keepers to say otherwise. What the Metaverse offers us, like a forest fire that destroys the old growth and fertilizes the soil, is a return to the old ways of learning between individuals.
At the moment, it's the kids who are exploring this largely without support or supervision. The adults are frozen like deer in the headlights, not knowing how to act and pretending they don't need to learn. Most likely, the adults won't learn; adults rarely do. Over time, those more adept will grow into leadership positions, and, more or less naturally, the Metaverse will become second nature.
How can the over-engagement in virtual interactions result in mental health illnesses (e.g., delusions, hallucinations, depression, psychoticism), and how can we protect ourselves from such outcomes?
Within communities and among people who are involved with the Metaverse, I don't see this as a real threat. Instead, it threatens isolated people, subject to exploitation and lacking support. This could involve everything from information theft to real, personal attacks. But it's not the Metaverse that's to blame. To employ the old gun owner's rights slogan, "It's not the Metaverse that harms people, people do" (Johnson, 2013).
While we may argue about gun control, there is little chance of restricting communication in an open society. Instead, we're seeing contests over regulating the quality of information. Claims of fake news, misleading information, and libelous remarks broadcast over cyberspace have created the domestic spectacle of Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard and the civil lawsuit of Alex Jones versus the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. Infowars, the name of Alex Jones' program, is turning out to be more than a metaphor.
On the other hand, there is the specter of a closed society, a totalitarian state, and a gaged press. The totalitarian solution fails because preventing conflict restricts creativity and development. Totalitarian states will forever be stealing the creative insights they cannot foster for themselves. It is a lucky accident that the internet is a distributed network that cannot easily be controlled. What controls we might impose will have to come at local levels, which is just where we need it for the support and guidance of individuals.
My solution to the dangers of the Metaverse is no different from the solution to the risks of growth and learning. The solution is participation, contribution, and experimentation. There are risks, and risks are necessary. The object is not truth, certitude, or control. It's exploration, appreciation, and careful mistakes. As science and software development says, "Fail fast and fail often." (Babineaux & Krumboltz, 2013; Khanna et al., 2016; Pontefract, 2018).
Can the realistic nature of the Metaverse combined with the ability to walk away from the experience cause us to underestimate the harmful effects of oversharing, and how can such oversharing negatively impact our mental health?
The anonymity of cyberspace makes the harmful effects on our egos of oversights, aggressions, and indiscretions more likely. I suspect this is why many people who don't know how to protect their boundaries hesitate to expose themselves in cyberspace.
Building trust and rapport is recognized to be critical to the success of therapy and counseling. It is generally not recognized but is equally essential in teaching and management. The Metaverse is a social forum that facilitates communication, and the impact of that communication will be determined by the quality of the information and the depth of the rapport.
People who accept without question what others present for their benefit are at the greatest risk of being misled. As a counselor and therapist, I go to great lengths to establish rapport, and I do not engage with others or encourage them to share with me until we have established a rapport.
It is likely that the Metaverse will both raise people's standard for the rapport they require before they share their feelings and the rigidity of the boundaries people set to protect themselves. These are the lessons I'm seeing youth and adolescents learn through their hours of cyber relationships, and that adults are not.
Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Ugly)
How can the Metaverse fuel a new form of social addiction, and how can such addiction spiral out of control?
This question refers to the dangers feared by those unfamiliar with and unskilled in cyberspace communication. Addiction is in the mind, not the medium. The rewards the Metaverse offers for inflicting suffering without repercussion are not enough to habituate a person to this kind of behavior. The Metaverse is still too unreal, and its rewards are too inadequate to provide what's known as operant conditioning, namely the training of behavior through the administration of rewards and punishments.
The rewards that cyberspace provides for bad behavior are triggers for the rewards of one's imagination. Even where the rewards for killing are real and substantial, the effect of this kind of “game” is devastating to the “players” (Chatterjee, 2015; Phillipps, 2022). It's the reward you imagine that satisfies, not the visual presentation of something that lacks emotional meaning.
The horrors of war, seen up close on video screens, day in, day out, are inducing an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress syndrome. - Pratap Chatterjee (2015)
It used to be that parents worried about violent games teaching violent behavior. “Grand Theft Auto” was a game that caused consternation among parents. It still does (Arias, 2021; Kain, 2013; Rockstar Games, 2022). These parents were applying out-of-date paradigms of behavior modeling.
Games have rules, and most game players recognize those rules as limited to the context of the game. Only an uninformed person would adopt the rules of a frustrating, challenging, and contrived simulation to real life. The more experienced one is with the game, the less likely one would adopt gameplay in real life. Statistically, we don't see a correlation between video game consummation and real-life violence.
I find that reasonable kids who encounter violent games recognize them as suggesting violence and dislike them. The bad behavior that some kids express is not through physical violence carried over into real life. It’s personal violence to each other in their virtual world.
It's not the graphic violence that's leading to bad behavior, it's the inclination to repeatedly deceive, defeat, and deface each other that destroys relationships. Games may enable this, but the players decide whether to behave in this way. If the game rewards you for bad behavior, and you lose your friends because of it, that is a personal decision.
Can too frequent engagement in Metaverse interactions lead to real-world relationship decay, and how can such decay negatively impact our mental health?If not, why not?
This question is too general. There is no one Metaverse that one can be too involved with. Online porn has little in common with online discussion groups. The rewards of gaming have little in common with the rewards of friendship.
If a person escapes from real relationships through the distractions of online entertainment, then it's no different from locking yourself in your house and watching television. Don't blame the medium for personal decisions. The only thing we might blame on the Metaverse is making it more likely that some people will lose social contact, but this is a fault of the culture, not the world into which they retreat.
I created a sexually inappropriate family board game as an experiment in family behavior. I think it's a great idea and a pretty good game, too; no one has ever played it. You can see it on my website in the Deep Learning area. The game is titledOrgy of Moderation.
Air Force drone pilot Captain Kevin Larson committed suicide because of the real-life trauma of remotely killing real people (Phillipps, 2022). Mental illness and antisocial behavior do not result from playing simulations.
What happens to our mental health when our Metaverse relationships abruptly end, and why?
Are we talking about relationships with real people or NPCs (non-playing characters controlled by an artificial intelligence computer program)? Real relationships have all the risks and rewards of reality. Cyberspace is no more than a communication channel. Relationships are no more likely to be accepted or rejected over an audio-video connection than they are when engaged face to face.
It is possible to encounter misleading people in the Metaverse. We all experience scam calls, deceptive emails, and suspicious offers. We're shaken, disappointed, scammed, or abused by them.
If these attacks were created and managed by artificial intelligence programs, they would be the fault of those who created the programs, not the medium through which they were delivered. Crime exists, and every medium has vulnerabilities.
We would not expect good relationships to end abruptly. We should suspect that those relationships which end abruptly are not good relationships. I see no indication that the relationship damage that is done because of the Multiverse will ever equal the kind of relationship damage that people cause each other because of their intentions.
Relationship counseling is our solution to troubled relationships. We can do the same for cyber relationships. By their remote and intangible nature, cyber relationships are unlikely to be as damaging as real relationships.
Protecting Our Mental Health in the Metaverse
What steps can we take to protect ourselves in the Metaverse, and how will they help?
At present, the Metaverse is a collage of familiar relationships: news, advertising, gameplay, sales, manipulation, entertainment, remote communication, pornography, and storytelling. How one defends oneself depends on what you engage in.
Most important is to protect your integrity, which is a matter of establishing rapport and defining and enforcing your boundaries.
Protecting one's privacy is a matter of protecting personal information, which is an exercise in protecting one's boundaries. I consider privacy to be largely an illusion and only a matter of degree. Given enough reason and with enough resources, no information is secure from those who want access to it. At the same time, the most serious breaches of privacy are those we enable ourselves. As many of us learned decades ago, do not say anything in private today that you do not want to appear in the headlines tomorrow.
Vetting information should be everyone's responsibility; this is a lesson we're learning as victims of poor institutional behavior. The mendacity we've seen in government and healthcare around the issues of Covid-19 has made it clear that institutions whose directives do not serve individual interests cannot be accepted blindly. This is true especially of public institutions and private corporations that minimize the interests of individuals.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The problems of the Metaverse are greatest where power and resources are greatest. These are in the government and corporate sectors. If we want to protect ourselves as individuals and communities, we need to have good communication skills and clear personal boundaries.
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Soller, L. (2021b). Becoming supergenius, Part II: The inner world, Mind Strength Balance, Victoria, BC.
Responses provided by Lincoln Stoller, PhD, CHt, CCPCPr-candidate, Principal at Mind Strength Balance
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