We spend much time as Christians considering identity and how we are formed in the image of God. At the same time our modern world questions that identity making what Robin Thicke referred to in his song, as ‘blurred lines.’

This is not an argument as to what it is to be human. Nor about gender, or preferences or anything like that. This is about the future of virtual reality and questions what identity might look like…or not, how identity may be formed (or not) and the problem that it might pose Christians.  Random musings, and asking the questions.

Defining Significant Sensory Immersion

Significant Sensory Immersion is not the same as total sensory immersion (see the wiki here  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immersion_(virtual_reality) ). ‘Total’ is questionable…when do we get there? When our senses are fooled? Is it perhaps simply the state of providing ways in which all five senses are immersed in virtual reality?

I want to suggest this new limit of SIGNIFICANT because it may not be necessary to create an out of body experience to change the boundaries of what the mind reflects on as a ‘real’ experience.

For instance, you can watch a scary movie, and be completely aware that you are in the cinema, and yet you will experience fear.  So, you could, in a SSI environment be fully aware that you are in the comfort of your own home, and yet your senses are telling you otherwise.

What this does is to affect how memory works. I have an interesting problem in that when I remember my dreams, I occasionally spend the rest of the day responding as if that thing had really happened, even though I know for a fact that it did not. Something has happened to shape both my conscious and my subconscious mind to the extent that I will respond in a particular way to new situations in the following time period.

Equally the scary film may make someone start to see movement out of the corner of their eye. We could call this cognitive residual sensory immersion effect, where the immersive experience has an effect beyond the experience itself.

So Significant Sensory Immersion is the point of virtual sensory immersion necessary to convince the unconscious mind that it has had a very real experience, where there is a residual affect shaping following realities, even if the conscious mind realises that it has not had any such experience.

Now if there is immersion to this degree, then it may well start to affect how we behave in real life. The offline world. This is raised already with the concerns that young people who play shooting games may have less difficulty in shooting people in real life. At the moment this is not true, and the statistics show that there is no correlation (apologies…I can’t find where I read it! Please add in the comments below if you discover it).

However, we are not at a point of SSI as yet.  And at the moment any interactions online and the following residual effect offline will probably have more to do with a person’s own value system that dictates one way or another.

Considering Significant Sensory Immersion effect on identity.

Let us imagine a young person (doesn’t have to be youth, but identity formation is crucial at this age), who is wrestling with their identity. And they decide to experiment. We are aware that MUCH experimentation happens in the realms of personality, relationships, sex and so on in adolescence, and much of it down to brain chemistry and the significant changes that the human brain goes through at this age.

With virtual reality and access to infinite possibilities, they are able to choose to experiment and stimulate brain activity in whatever way they wish. They can create avatars to be whoever they choose, switching gender, age, and role play whatever they might wish too.

This, of course, is no problem for very young children who will do this much of the time, and creative imaginative play is very important for the younger child.

However, there is a difference between imagination and immersion. Will the stimulation of the senses actually shape the connections being made?

Identity is formed through experience, decision making, and discovering a place of belonging and how you relate to that place, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_formation for some good extracts to explore this further.

As these connections are made, and there is no need to commit to one identity or another and there becomes a complete ambiguity over the necessity of identity formation, will we begin to see the next stage of erosion of necessary maturity?

The Peter Pan syndrome would suggest that some people are failing to commit and grow up. This is shaped by a limited exposure to limitless possibilities. In other words, the web is limitless, however at Web 2.0 (and 2.0a) means you can’t be exposed to a point of not being exposed to any other influence.  I first spotted the Peter Pan syndrome in my early youth work days where youth workers were failing to recognise that they were staying and behaving as youth people into their 30’s and older. Whilst a youthful approach is useful, especially with connecting with young people, we also need to know what it is to be adult to be able to help them step across the bridge into adulthood. We stand on the bridge to offer a helping hand. And at times we enter their world, and at others remain in our adult world. Both are important.

Later as the years have passed I have noticed stars of stage and screen, to coin a phrase, retain the Peter Pan syndrome, enhanced by plastic surgery, and free choice lifestyles that are not limited by money or conscience. I think this is the outworking of the Peter Pan syndrome.  The limit for many people, therefore, is perhaps one of finances?  The question would be asked, if you could afford to do X, would you?

But there may be other barriers that affect identity formation, such as cultural norms. What if all barriers were removed by significant sensory immersion?

Essentially identity is concerned with self-discovery and maturity.  With the Peter Pan syndrome, it seems that this process is halted. So Identity is not fully formed.

So what happens if our young person referred to earlier only needs to spend a small amount on VR tech to enable them to be able to enter a world where a significant experience rather than costing many thousands of pounds, costs very few.

What effect will that have on the Peter Pan syndrome? Perhaps identity will at best become fluid…and at worst become confused.

Could we see something that might be described as Fluid Ambiguous Identification, where we can be anything to the extent that we are, in fact, nothing?

A Christian response

For Christians, this leaves us with a problem. We believe that God formed us to be who we are meant to be, and in Christ, we are free to truly discover this. And part of doing youthwork is to help young people to know that they are wanted, loved and created by a God who knows what he is doing. That they can find an identity knowing that they are that person, and they have a value.

  • We have a problem in being able to describe this identity to a world in which identity has become fluid, or confused. As we discover that more people are wanting exits from commitment, another symptom of Peter Pan syndrome, or will only commit with an exit strategy, then to express identity as fixed, or even a fixed identity to be preferred, we may become disbelieved. When you could be anything, why would you want to choose to be just one thing?
  • We need to ask if there are no barriers to accessing fluid ambiguous identification (such as finance, or cultural norms) what might be the consequences to society and to the individual?
  • If we are unable to fix identity, does that mean that God is no longer relevant to these people?
  • Or will the idea of identity as a child of God in itself embrace the creativity of God?


No solutions…only questions…..