“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Hamlet Au, New World Notes.
This is Fran, an 85 year old woman who plays Second Life as an avatar named Fran Seranade, and while that’s interesting in itself, many other senior citizens like her are known to be active in SL. Here is the truly extraordinary thing: For over 7 years, Fran has been afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system afflicting millions around the world, including actor Michael J. Fox and sports legend Muhammed Ali. In Fran’s case, Parkinson’s has made it difficult for her to stand from a sitting position, and maintain her balance while upright. But now Fran reports she’s gained significant recovery of physical movement — as a direct consequence of her activity in Second Life.
How did this happen? According to her, she originally used Second Life just as a fun way to socialize, but “[a]fter awhile I began to identify with my avatar and feel like I was actually doing what she was doing.” On one occasion, she played with some tai chi meditation animations for her avatar (that’s her below), and this was a turning point:
“As I watched her,” as she tells me through e-mail, “I could actually feel the movements within my body as if I were actually doing tai chi in my physical life (which is not possible for me).” She made this avatar-based tai chi a daily routine while meditating, and then sensed it was having an impact on herself:
“For a year I have sat and slept in a motorized lounge chair that brings me to a standing position when I push a button.” After weeks of watching her avatar practice tai chi, however, “I could feel that my body had become stronger.” Until a day came where she was able to stand without motorized assistance. “Now,” she says, “I can go from a sitting to standing position without even using my arms to push against the arm rests. This has been absolutely thrilling for me.”
This isn’t the only apparent physical effect spurred by her Second Life usage, for she reports it’s also helped her with physical equilibrium: “For years when going down a curb to get into a car I would put my hand on the car for balance. One day I said to myself, ‘I know I can step down from this curb and keep my balance because I have seen my avatar do it.’” She succeeded at doing just that. And, she adds, “I have maintained that ability for two years now.”
These are very dramatic claims, but they first came to me through my friend Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine and fellow with the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing. Lead author of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds from Princeton Press, Tom’s among the most well-respected academics studying the social implications of virtual worlds, particularly Second Life.
While researching the way disabled people use virtual worlds, he met Fran and her daughter Barbara, who now leads a Second Life-based support group for Parkinson’s. (Her avatar name is Barbie Alchemi.) Tom’s met both Fran and Barbara in real life, and recorded video of Fran’s physical recovery, and believes her condition is worth studying further. In this he’s joined by Donna Z. Davis (PhD), an Assistant Professor at University of Oregon (avatar name: Tredi Felisimo), who recently received a research grant to further study the physical and psychological effects of virtual worlds like Second Life on people with Parkinson’s. They have a tentative theory for why Fran’s recovery might be possible:
Images: New World Notes.