• Rewiring the brain with VR

[WARNING: ‘Arrival’ spoilers ahead!]

The central premise of ‘Arrival’ (go see it!) is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — the view that language actually shapes the way you see reality, or the way you perceive it. Of course being a work of science fiction the movie stretches the concept to an extreme in the visual language used by the aliens, which conflates expressions of the past, present and future into circular motifs. Underlining the fact that time doesn’t have a direction, to the aliens.

Which means that as soon as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist played by Amy Adams begins, to understand the language she starts seeing, or living in, the past, present and future at the same time, all at once. Her brain has been rewired profoundly.

I saw ‘Arrival’ one day before I listened to an episode of ‘The Voices of VR’ podcast in which host Kent Bye interviewed artist Android Jones. One thing Jones said immediately stirred up thoughts of the movie —

“When I was using Oculus Medium for the first time I could feel aspects of my brain firing, new neural connections that weren’t just dormant, they were non existent before this moment”.

That in turn reminded me of Albert Hwang’s incredible VR app, that actually gave him an intuition for higher order dimensional thinking, by taking a 4D hypercube and transposing it to 3D in a Virtual Reality —

Hwang is quite emphatic about it —

“Playing with this application confirmed one of my earlier suspicions which is, when Virtual Reality is designed well it allows us,.. it unlocks in the human race, the ability to think in higher dimensional space. Virtual Reality has really unlocked a totally new understanding for me.”

But nobody, perhaps, has yet put it quite as poetically as Glen Keane, the legend of Disney animation —

“That doorway to the imagination is opened a little wider. The edges of the paper are no longer there. This is not a flat drawing, this is sculptural drawing. Making art in three dimensional space is an entirely new way of thinking for any artist. What does this mean for story-telling?”

Indeed, and what does it mean for communication? The visual language used by the aliens in ‘Arrival’ was free from the linear constraints of spoken language. VR natives might not develop the ability to see the future but I’ll be fascinated to see what latent faculties they unlock.

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