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Nov 8, 2012 by MAE CHAN
The Power of Virtual Reality: Your Avatar Can Influence Your Health and Weight

The "I" one thinks of as "myself" is inextricably attached to one's bodily location. Internet-based interactive games and social media outlets have become intertwined with the physical realities of millions of people around the world. When an individual strongly identifies with the cyber representation of themselves, known as an avatar, the electronic doppelganger can influence that person's health, weight and appearance, according to a University of Missouri researcher's study.

Harnessing the power of the virtual world could lead to new forms of obesity treatment and help break down racial and sexual prejudices.

Neuroscientists have devised many studies and novel experiments using virtual reality shedding light on decades of clinical data pointing to cognitive and perceptual mechanisms involved in humans' concept of self.

Many of these studies have conclusively stated that our psychology and interpretation of our bodies and minds largely influences our state of health or illness and that disease would be impossible if human beings knew how to override these innate mechanisms which strongly guide our perception.

Esoteric and spiritual teachers have known for ages that our body is programmable by language, words and thought. This has now been scientifically proven and explained.

"The creation of an avatar allows an individual to try on a new appearance and persona, with little risk or effort," said Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, assistant professor of communication in MU's College of Arts and Science. "That alter-ego can then have a positive influence on a person's life. For example, people seeking to lose weight could create fitter avatars to help visualize themselves as slimmer and healthier."

In Behm-Morawitz's study, 279 users of a virtual reality community, Second Life, answered a questionnaire about their engagement with their avatar and relationships they developed online, as well as their offline health, appearance and emotional well-being. Self-presence, or the degree to which users experienced their avatars as an extension of themselves, was found to predict the influence of the avatar on people's physical reality. A strong sense of self-presence in the social virtual world positively promoted health and well-being of study participants. People with high degrees of self-presence in the cyber world reported that their experience with their avatar improved how they felt about themselves offline. Self-presence also correlated to greater satisfaction with online relationships.

"This study found no evidence of negative effects of a high degree of self-presence in the virtual world on study participants; however, that doesn't rule out the possibility," said Behm-Morowitz. "Users should practice moderation. Virtual entertainment, like other forms of diversion such as books or television, can be used in unhealthy ways."

Further research by Behm-Morawitz on virtual worlds will look at how avatars may be used to encourage tolerance of diversity. A person's race, gender or ethnicity can be altered in the virtual reality world and they can be put into simulated situations where they suffer prejudice and discrimination. Avatars can create the modern version of the book Black Like Me, in which the Caucasian author darkened his skin to experience life as an African-American in the Deep South of the 1950s.

"I am also interested in studying how using an avatar with a different race or ethnicity may increase empathy and decrease prejudice," said Behm-Morawitz. "This may occur through the process of identification with an avatar that is different from oneself, or through a virtual simulation that allows individuals to experience discrimination as a member of a non-dominant group might experience it."

Future progress in the field of virtual reality (VR) will be enhanced by multidisciplinary collaborations between the technology industry and academia, and among scientists with diverse expertise. Some integrated projects will include:

    • Using VR to foster desirable eating, physical activity, and other health-related behaviors
      • Making smarter eating choices in various locations (such as home, restaurants, school cafeteria)
      • Training for more healthful food purchasing and food use decisions (including shopping lists, budgeting, menu planning and food preparation skills)
      • Counteracting food marketing efforts
      • Assist parents in teaching small children better eating habits (e.g. eat at table, eat variety of foods, try new foods, eat fruits and vegetables)
      • Training in portion size effects on weight gain and loss
      • Retraining conditioned emotional and behavioral responses to food and eating contexts (cue-exposure of unhealthful foods or contexts where unhealthful eating behaviors occur)
      • Assessing reliability and outcomes of existing “health games” or “serious games”
      • Improving self-efficacy by VR-guided practice of desired behaviors, including role-playing, scenario navigation, and presentation of information matched to individual learning style and motivational factors

The study, "Mirrored selves: The influence of self-presence in a virtual world on health, appearance and well-being," was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Mae Chan holds degrees in both physiology and nutritional sciences. She is also blogger and and technology enthusiast with a passion for disseminating information about health.

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