Virtual reality as a spiritual experience: a perspective from the cognitive science of religion

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Virtual reality (VR) is often described as a gateway to a religious or spiritual experience but why? In this article, using theories and evidence taken from the cognitive science of religion (CSOR), we hypothesize that human minds may interact with VR-hosted phenomena in a manner highly similar to that in which they interact with supernatural concepts. Specifically, we note that both VR inputs and supernatural concepts contain information that (1) contradicts the intuitive set of expectations we bring to an ontological category of phenomena (for example, natural objects, animals) and (2) allows us to draw a superabundance of inferences from our social cognitive mechanisms with minimal effort. We then summarize these points by illustrating a common VR phenomenon virtual touch wherein counterintuitive representations and strategic information coalesce to create an emotionally salient experience that is itself counterintuitive and by some accounts spiritual-like.

Keywords: Second Life; cognitive; religion; touch; virtual

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Oxfords Centre for Anthropology and Mind.

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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