VENTEUR spoke with Lincoln Stoller about the pros and cons of the Metaverse. Stoller has a doctorate in quantum physics, hypnotherapy, clinical counseling certifications, and two decades as a software entrepreneur. Professionally, he focuses on neuropsychology, sleep, anxiety, stress, and personal growth, writes frequently, and offers remote counseling and coaching.
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?
The Metaverse is just a vehicle. Think of it as a form of transportation, a new network that can shrink distances and which requires your participation.
There is the idea that the Metaverse will enable greater variety, but I can only partially agree. The alternate personalities we present will have no more effect than the clothes we wear or the cars we drive. Instead, the Metaverse offers the opportunity to build authentic or inauthentic communication.
The promise of the Metaverse lies in how we use it. This is a personal, not a technical, choice. The mental health of a group—mental health can be thought of as a group property—will be determined by how the individuals within it are supported.
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?
How one presents oneself is a question of opportunity. People who present themselves ineffectively will continue to be ineffective. The Metaverse will provide more manageable, not better, ways of presentation. As good possibilities will develop more quickly, so will bad possibilities. The Metaverse accelerates change but, by itself, has little effect on values.
Think of culture as an ecology: the Metaverse creates alternative paths for energy flow. This enables faster evolution, but evolution means rearrangement, which is often not for the better. For example, new communication may not keep the benefits of old communication. To make evolution positive, we must create more efficient, positive paths.
Virtual Reality-aided (VR) therapy is effective for various medical conditions, and VR has advantages in customization, compliance, cost, accessibility, motivation, and convenience that highlight its potential in health care. – Zhen Liu et al. (2022)
Can the Metaverse effectively serve as a medium through which socially distanced individuals develop meaningful connections?
Proximity is an illusion. The more senses are involved, the more authentic the communication seems. Because we perceive more than we're conscious of, richer connections are more compelling. But we can learn to say more with the connections we have. The Metaverse can take away the need to optimize our words.
Gamification's roots are found in marketing as public relations companies attempt to harness the compulsive nature of games to keep consumers engaged with their brands and, ultimately, to sell more products… The problem that gamification can address is a lack of 'engagement'... attributed to the chaos and complexity of contemporary society. – Anna Mcfarlane (2016)
As a therapist who offers services remotely, I can engage effectively through a video connection by being authentic. My clients can do the same. Authenticity is a relatively easy skill, but many people need help to avoid it. Relationships seem more authentic for those people simply because more is broadcast. If enough people say or hear something, it takes on the gloss of truth.
The Metaverse provides people with the opportunity to hear and see more carefully. But both senses are dulled by the computer's interface. The technology will improve, requiring engagement, focus, and commitment to the process. Technology, like ecology, is a force, not a direction. It is opportunistic. It will only keep us on the road if someone is at the wheel.
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?
Bullied people bear more considerable responsibility for their situation than they realize. In school, job, or social contexts, people are compelled, obliged, or attracted to victim situations. Most of us don't look back along the path of our decisions to identify what we did that brought about our case.
The Metaverse easily entangles us. It's like flypaper. Being connected is our choice, but we can only exercise that choice if we have clear boundaries.
Virtual relationships are more fluid than physical relationships; they can be easily shaped. There is an opportunity to improve relationship management by thought and exploration or by learning from people with experience.
The most powerful solutions to bullying come with the development of boundaries and a greater awareness of the consequence of one's decisions. There will be transgressions where standards are lax, and skills are weak. The question is how quickly people will learn and how many people will be hurt. We don't need education; we need experience.
How can the Metaverse's empowerment of self-expression backfire and result in greater repression?
Learning requires errors. If people don't make mistakes, they don't learn. Trying to protect people with limits will not save them once they go beyond these limits. A learning environment enables mistakes, clarifies errors, and guards against dire consequences. Removing the potential for making bad choices does not make people wiser.
How can the over-engagement in virtual interactions result in mental health illnesses, and how can we protect ourselves from such outcomes?
The opportunity to escape into a false reality could lead to less engagement. Bringing contentious people together does not assure better communication. A growing metaverse does not guarantee progress. People will see what they feel and won't see what they don't judge. Fostering safe spaces and providing authentic support promotes health, but for it to endure, it must be something people maintain. They must take ownership of the process of creating safety and being authentic.
This "chicken or the egg" problem can be overcome with mentoring. People must be allowed to make mistakes and be responsible. They must be given full rein to play out their personalities while protecting the innocent. This might be done better in a simulated environment than in the real world. Gaming is becoming the primary vehicle for interaction in the Metaverse.
"Immersive VR (virtual reality) can make us feel; it is this power to create emotionally evocative experiences that provide the illusion of presence in a virtual environment (VE), and higher immersion is correlated with higher psychological presence… A series of experiments demonstrated that:
- When people experienced racism as a minority avatar, their implicit racial bias in the real world was reduced.
- Inhabiting the avatar of an older adult makes subjects more willing to save for their retirement.
- Inhabiting the body of a logger, chopping down an inviting clearing of trees with a chainsaw, makes people behave in a more environmentally conscious manner in the form of a 20% reduction in paper use.
- Swimming through virtual coral reefs as they bleach to death can trigger eco-friendly behavior, like turning off lights or using less water (the resulting behavior was also measured one week after the VR experience).
- Embodying the form of a cow and experiencing the animal's suffering in the slaughterhouse can also generate empathy for another species.
- Experiencing a terminal diagnosis and subsequent death can better prepare medical students to enhance patient empathy." – ICRC Blog (2019)
Can the realistic nature of the Metaverse and the ability to walk away from experience cause us to underestimate the harmful effects of over-sharing, and how can such oversharing negatively impact our mental health?
It's all about rules and boundaries. The rules determine the actions, and the boundaries define how far the consequences will go.
We tend to play by the rules and focus on the consequences, but both are part of the game. Each person needs to feel free to define their own rules and set boundaries. Systems evolve through feedback, and only emotion provides the complete picture. Unfortunately, in a society afraid of feeling or expressing emotion, feedback is withheld, and consequences are distorted.
We live in a world of increasing distraction and complexity, where organizations need to cut through the noise and users need systems that can help them achieve their full potential… (but) this emphasis on 'cutting through the noise gives little thought to the value of our attention. It assumes that 'engagement' alone is a goal worth striving for. However, in doing so, gamification treats engagement as a commodity. – Anna Mcfarlane (2016)
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?
There will always be extremes in chaotic systems. They can't be predicted. In such scenarios, pervasive rules that protect against all adverse circumstances are repressive. We have rules about driving, and amazingly, few are hurt. We have a system to collect and heal them when they are broken.
We can compare addiction with falling asleep: losing conscious control. If we understand what causes it and remove the opportunities that losing control provides, we'll do better at preventing the consequences than we will by making rules and enacting punishments.
I was once the sole witness of a fatal auto accident. A trial was held to determine the culpability of the surviving driver. The judge said, "He fell asleep. These things happen. We can't hold him responsible."
Can too frequent engagement in Metaverse interactions lead to real-world relationship decay, and how could that decay negatively impact our mental health?
It's a mistake to focus on the medium rather than the message. If something happens "too frequently," there's probably a reason.
Be careful about trusting other people's definitions of mental health. The emotional need is not a mental illness, and struggle is not a disease. Emotional trouble shows that there is something that needs support. It may not be a structural failure.
If people have trouble communicating, it would be more beneficial to help them communicate rather than establish rules limiting communication. I am suspicious of rules that blame the few to ensure the comfort of the many. Often, these few carry a message many need to hear, and we can assume that message is disruptive. Who do we let define "our mental health?"
What happens to our mental health when our Metaverse relationships abruptly end, and why?
Why should this be seen as different from any other relationship? Relationships end for good and bad reasons. Most relationships have value and carry lessons that we often need to learn. I try to preserve all relationships until they die of old age.
The Metaverse enables relationships to die more quickly, which is part of the medium. One needs to learn the territory and build out from it. Virtual relationships are insufficient. To be heartbroken over the dissolution of fantasy is narcissistic. Narcissism is the problem, not the Metaverse. Teach people to recognize and foster authenticity and to build strength in themselves without relying on fantasies.
Protecting Our Mental Health in the Metaverse
What steps can we take to protect ourselves in the Metaverse, and how will they help?
The Metaverse is a distorting mirror of ourselves. It amplifies weaknesses more than it supports our strengths. We are unstable systems. There are more ways to undermine our mental foundations than to fortify our strengths.
Building character is the hero's journey. The Metaverse gives us a fast boat to deep water. Protection is the same in any case: use judgment, build support, and find inspiration. These are the essential tools for mental health.
Reality should not be about achieving specific, pre-ordained goals, but about approaching the complexity of reality with the nuance, it deserves. The ends do not always justify the means in real life. Rather than gamifying life, a space should be left open for 'play' as an alternative to gaming. Play is not goal-oriented; it is experimental and creates new approaches and ways of thinking. – Anna Mcfarlane (2016)
Is there anything else you would like to share?
"Are we certain that the Metaverse is a product and we are users or are we products and the Metaverse a user that mines and benefits from user-generated data? Will it be open to only human users, or will many meta bots manipulate humans? Are we well prepared for cyber syndromes in such virtual worlds due to our isolation from reality in the physical world? If the novelty effect of the Metaverse tempts us, we get might nothing but a Metaworse." – Tlili et al. (2022)
- ICRC Blog (2019). The current state of virtual reality on behavior change, International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved from: https://blogs.icrc.org/inspired/wp-content/uploads/sites/107/2019/10/Article-Review-VR-and-Behavior-Change.pdf
- Liu, Z., Ren, L., Xiao, C., Zhang, K., & Demian, P. (2022 Feb 19). Virtual reality aided therapy towards health 4.0: A two-decade bibliometric analysis, Int J Environ Res Public Health, 19 (3): 1525. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031525
- Mcfarlane, A. (2016) Neal Stephenson's Reamde: a critique of gamification. Foundation, 45 (123), pp. 24-36. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/32502713/Neal_Stephenson_s_REAMDE_A_Critique_of_Gamification
- Tlili, A., Huang, R., Shehata, B., Liu, D., Zhao, J., Metwally, A. H. S., Wang, H., Denden, M., Bozkurt, A., Lee, L.-H., Dogus Beyoglu, D., Altinay, F., Ramesh C. Sharma, R. C., Zehra Altinay, Z., Zhisheng Li, Z., Liu, J., Ahmad, F., Hu, Y., Salha, S., Abed, M., & Burgos, D.. (2022). Is Metaverse in education a blessing or a curse: a combined content and bibliometric analysis, Smart Learning Environments, 9: 24? https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-022-00205-x