Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at http://carrie.seriousgames.msu.edu/docs/A_Meditation_on_Embodied_Presence_and_Meditation.pdf>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/7/1577.full).

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Presence-Bringing-Your-Boldest-Self-Biggest-Challenges/1409156001/ (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/geosheas-lost-episodes/images/f/ff/Fleischer-superman.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20151006182504 The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo1.mp3 and https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo2.mp3 I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.

Where does freedom of expression end?

There have been a few blog entries I’ve read recently about the Stop Funding Hate campaign decrying the campaign’s success with Lego withdrawing its promotions from the Daily Mail. Here’s one http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/11/stop-funding-hate-nasty-elitist-campaign-press-censorship/

Here’s another http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2016/news/deputy-editor-attacks-stop-funding-hate-supporters-hypocrisy/

And a third http://www.bruceonpolitics.com/2016/11/13/stop-funding-hate-fascists/

There are two problems with the arguments against what the SFH campaign is doing.

The first is; they’re not limiting free speech. They’re merely using the tools that created a platform for the Daily Mail and Express against them.

There are no left wing mass media outlets. By the nature of mass media, it requires massive funding to achieve. People with lots of money tend to be right wing, because of course they’d be OK with the system as it is, it’s the one in which they’ve become successful, and it’s not in their interest therefore to change it. Some may have made their money by luck, or intelligence, or a combination of both, but the largest corporations make their money because the capitalist system works for them.

Newspapers have a ludicrous business model. They only survive because of advertising. When I was at journalism school (89 – 92) I wasn’t very motivated by the newspaper side of things because I assumed with the Internet they wouldn’t be around much longer. I’d not accounted for the inertia that culture and big business together can provide. They’re not driven by audiences therefore, they’re driven by advertisers, hence big business, hence right wing.

For the average person to influence their direction therefore, it can’t be done by not buying them. People are already not buying them. They can only influence them by not buying stuff from their advertisers.

But nobody’s stopping them from saying what they want. There’s the normal social media avenue that everyone else who’s not supported by massive corporate investment has. Anyone who works for a newspaper is still free to use that. There’s no suppression involved, just an effort to limit the unfair advantage. So likening the process to book burning is ridiculous.

The second flaw in the argument is that none of the stuff I’ve read from those who are supporting the campaign argues that newspapers shouldn’t express a different political position if they want. Any well-argued, accurate and evidenced account from a different perspective is fine.

It’s poorly-argued, inaccurate and evidenceless positions that are what they’re objecting to. The failure of mass media to actually stick to the truth is a given, the Mail never has after all. From an educational perspective though, and looking at things like “graduateness”, educating a population to insist on the truth should be one of our aims. If not our chief aim. And from that perspective seeing people demanding it, and a big business acceding to the need for it before they will invest in something, is reassuring that in some areas at least, things are moving in the right direction.

To say something is “true” is of course could be falling to the trap of assuming there is such a thing as independent objective reality. Of course there isn’t. The word “is” should only ever be used as a short-hand for “according to the best interpretation of the available evidence”. Since doing my astrophysics degree we’ve gone from “the rate of the universe expansion is slowing” to “the rate of the universe expansion is increasing”. The first of those things was true in the 80s, the second of those is currently true. Any fact is only tentatively held.

That doesn’t mean though that the truth is completely up for grabs and that any statement is valid because no-one really knows. I’ve been increasingly surprised by the discussions in the Horizon 2020 groups on LinkedIn where there are a lot of statements denouncing scientific arrogance, that science is perceived as the only route to knowledge. If you think that testing, evidence, argument, and selecting the best explanation from those presented by that process isn’t the only way to come up with a viewpoint, then stay the fuck away from research. And stay the fuck away from education too. Because you are a waste of oxygen. And far too dangerous to be around learners.

We’ve seen one huge problem with this lack of insistence on evidence with the Trump candidacy. Politifact http://www.politifact.com/ ought to be one of the most influential sites in politics, because if someone’s making stuff up, it should really count against them. But then there’s this http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/statements/byruling/pants-fire/ Which everyone voting knew really, but not enough people thought mattered.

So – the conclusion is, in academia, in teaching, we have to loudly and immediately call bullshit whenever it arises, not fall prey to considerations of all viewpoints being valid. It’s the best defence against intellectual dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour. And also that wishy-washy poverty of thinking exemplified by Tim Minchin in Storm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U or Sokal and Bricmont in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense. But defend freedom of speech whenever possible too. Those two things are not incompatible at all.