Dec 082008

I have long maintained that paying attention to someone (or that person’s expression) amounts to aligning your mind to that someone’s. In seeing the world from their point of view, you partially “become” them. This can be through listening to and trying to understand their sentences, through reading something they have written, through looking at a picture or work of art that they have created, through watching them play a game such as golf or football, etc. To the extent you do take on their viewpoint,  you want what they want. And so on.

Recently, an experiment (reported by Benedict Carey in the NY Times) was described in an online science journal under the title  “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping” that demonstrates the ease with which seeing (in this case literally from another’s point of view) makes you feel you are they. A commenter, Alan Peters, said the following: “I have been doing research at Johnson Space Center in Houston with the NASA Robonaut robot for a number of years. One way that the robot can be controlled is through direct telepresense.{sic} That is, the operator dons a VR helmet, data gloves, and some other sensors. The operator sees through the robot’s stereo camera “eyes”. Any motions the operator makes with his/her arms and hands are reflected by the robot. In that way it is possible to control the robot in highly dexterous manipulation tasks. After operating the robot for a short period of time, one feels quite like the robot is one’s self. At least that’s how it felt to me. It was interesting to watch the world through the robot’s eyes. The first time I operated the robot, I could see this bearded, out-of-shape, older guy with a potbelly, sitting on a chair, wearing a helmet, and moving his arms around. It was me, of course. Didn’t seem like it though. And frankly, I didn’t look so good to me. I feel much better than I look! After having finished operating the robot, I always watch myself taking the VR helmet off. I am in the robot until the *instant* my eyes loose contact with the display. Then I have the uncanny sensation of snapping back into my own body. It’s quite an odd feeling, not unpleasant, but unlike anything else I’ve experienced.”

All this demonstrates how fully, and yet how easily we can take on the persona of another, or as I put it aligning our minds to that other. No other model of attention paying makes much sense.

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