Humans have been producing and interpreting content for a rather long time. Our storytelling techniques started with grunts, gestures, and cave paintings, and they haven’t stopped evolving since. We’ve developed new technologies and formats of expression that range from alphabets to interactive multimedia so quickly that our next moves as content creators are becoming difficult to predict—even just a few years down the line.
But in all this rapid change, one thing has remained much the same: our brains.
Studies have shown that the way we respond to our sensory inputs today is often a result of evolutionary processes that have shaped the way we navigate our environments. Take our visual system, for instance. We have a tendency to process objects we see above the horizon faster and more accurately than those we see below. This behavior evolved because we can devote more time, and therefore more resources, to responding to environmental factors that are far away (typically those that appear above the horizon in our visual field) than we do to those that are close (which typically appear below the horizon). These unconscious responses are an evolutionary adaption.
You could even say that we are products of our sensory interpretations of our environments. The very way we think (consciously and unconsciously) is shaped by how we deal with our sensory inputs.
As we continue to evolve and grow as a species, so, too, will our scientific knowledge. In the same way, content creators and marketers should continue to question and research the strategies they use in light of all the new and emerging discoveries about the human brain and technologies that make unprecedented content formats possible.
A better understanding of how our brains process sensory information is paramount to crafting content and strategizing storytelling techniques that are engaging, impactful, and drive behavior.
Scientists and content creators alike have known that for years, but there’s a fundamental shift happening in our content landscape. It’s being ushered in with technology that makes things like virtual and augmented reality possible. Our media landscape is becoming increasingly immersive.
Let’s start with one of the biggest misconceptions about these increasingly immersive forms of content: if we know how the brain processes each component of reality—audio, visual, textual, etc.—then all these taken together tell us how we process virtual reality, right?
Some of the most convincing evidence that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes from the decades-old Gestalt school of thought. The principle is best demonstrated using optical illusions that prove that our brains do not simply process the individual components of a scene. They actually “fill in the blanks” for what is or what our brains assume is missing.
Our brains are doing so much more in immersive environments than the sum of all the things they’re doing in response to isolated sensory inputs.
Do you see black dots inside the white dots at the corners of the grid above? Try focusing on one black dot. Can’t do it? That’s because those black dots aren’t actually there!
One of the newest branches of psychological research deals with the phenomena of presence and telepresence. It’s a field that will become increasingly central for content creators and marketers producing for new media formats and immersive environments.
The term telepresence stems from the phenomenon of presence. It’s “an illusion that a mediated experience is not mediated,” according to researchers Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton. Minsky goes on to explain telepresence as “feeling like you are actually there” when the environment is, in reality, a simulated one. It’s the feeling that the grass is so real you could reach out and touch it, or the instinct to back away from a cliff’s edge, even if your conscious mind knows it’s not real. Rheingold calls it a form of out-of-body experience. It’s the hallmark of some of our newest (and most immersive) content platforms.
In a recent talk at a global conference on virtual reality in Toronto, Ian Forester of VR Playhouse explains that some of the fundamental differences that set immersive content apart from its traditional (non-immersive) predecessors are all about human psychology. In complex simulated environments we suddenly have the freedom to experiment, and the power to effect change. In other words, a sense of agency.
So what do telepresence and agency mean for how we should be thinking creatively about content in the future? In these new content environments, our brains are actually processing sensory input in the same ways we see, hear, touch, etc. in our everyday lives. We are, in a way, tricked into believing the content is real, that it’s actually happening to us—as opposed to it being mediated through a screen or another interface.
For content creators and marketers, this means we need to dig deeper. We need to examine not just the way we process sensory input, but also what it means to be human. Who are we, what do we do, and how do we understand ourselves and our worlds?
This is a huge question, but it deserves some serious thought.
It might be fair to assume, as Ian Forester puts it, that “everything we do is tied to the belief that we are acting in the best interests of our own survival.” In David Kolb’s experiential model of learning, these survival instincts are built upon a continual process of forming mental models of the world through a feedback loop of behavior: belief–potential–action–results. If this is the case, this means that our entire existence is based on the extent to which we believe our senses offer all the necessary information to guide our actions.
In a fully immersive environment where we feel telepresence, we continue to create new mental models according to these new sensory inputs in exactly the same way we learn about and take action in our real worlds. We now have the ability to change our own brains’ understanding of reality.
Lombard and Ditton cite studies that show that one of the biggest psychological effects of immersive content is that it intensifies our emotions, reactions, and abilities. It increases or enhances enjoyment, involvement, task performance and training, desensitization, persuasion, memory, social judgment, and parasocial interaction.
As marketers and content creators, we need to start going beyond the traditional mantras of thinking creatively and start thinking psychologically and ethically, too. New content media present an enormous capacity to grow as a species, but also an enormous capacity to harm. Just as researchers have begun to cure people of their phobias and treat PTSD in VR environments, Lombard and Ditton cite studies that have found immersive media can cause nausea, eye strain, and headaches, reduced hand-eye coordination and motor control, and flashbacks. We have yet to explore some of the deeper potentially negative psychological ramifications. But if we extrapolate on the possible correlation between violent video games and aggression, we get a sense of just how challenging these new media forms will be.
As we enter a realm in which we have the ability to create simulated environments that feel real, more than ever we need to gain a deeper understanding of the mind so we can ensure the content we produce is ethically designed, and that it maximizes the potential for a psychologically beneficial new media landscape.