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>. 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 (

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 (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 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. and 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.

A brief history of mobile devices


Reading elsewhere in A History of the World in 100 Objects I came across this quote from a letter by Geoffrey Chaucer to his 10-year-old son, Lewis.

I have seen that there will be some instructions that will not in all things deliver their intended results; and some of them be too hard for thy tender age of ten years to understand.

Chaucer senior was talking about the user manual for the astrolabe that he’d bought for his son. This is an astrolabe:

It can be used to tell positions of stars and planets, your latitude, and is an inclinometer. And probably a few other things too. The parallels with smartphones is obvious. A new device, that fits in the pocket, and does an amazing amount of things. And so complicated it takes a ten-year-old to understand it. The parallels with the hand axe are apparent too. Again hand-sized (pocket-sized except it was probably invented before the pocket) with a wide variety of applications.

The fascination with technology is an in-built human experience. Anyone who claims that technology is dehumanising hasn’t really been paying attention to how we evolved. Sure it changes us, but that’s a fundamental part of the human experience. And yet frequently in education I’ve come across resistance, not because it’s difficult or time-consuming (though it can be that) but because people have said they have an ideological opposition to it. Which is perhaps overstating their case. It’s more accurate to say they didn’t like it.

But look at that. Imagine you’re in 1391 – how cool would it be to own one of those? Scratch that, it’s still cool in 2016. Alone that shouldn’t be the basis of educational experience (the “cult of the shiny”) but it has to count for something.

That’s one reason why mobile devices are so loved. They are cool, and they’re always to hand, and they have a multitude of uses. Torch, satnav, book, music player, games console, text messager, internet browser, clock, stopwatch, timezone converter, camera, (still and movie), calculator, TV. About the only thing I don’t use mine for is as a phone. I wouldn’t say it was a fixed part of me (I’m always putting mine down somewhere and forgetting it). But it is an extension of my means to interact with the world. That’s my one quibble with the book. The 100th object is a credit card, supposedly being the device that sums up our time in the way that the astrolabe summed up the 14th century. I think even back in 2010 when the book came out, the smartphone was evidently the defining device of our time. And now of course it’s making the credit card obsolete.

Douglas Adams described technology as a tool that doesn’t work yet. Marshall McLuhan described a tool that becomes an extension of us as a prosthesis. So gradually there’s an evolutionary process of our devices, from technology, to tool, to prosthesis. We appropriate the technology into our sense of our own selves, so that as a prosthesis it’s part of our proprioceptive system. Once the device becomes an extension of our bodies we don’t want to be separated from it, but it becomes an ideal medium for learning, because while operating it we don’t think about how to operate it, any more than we think about how to pick things up with our hands. It’s truly an invisible technology.

This is why designers change an interface at their peril. Often people will respond to the howls of protest with derision, as if it’s just a knee-jerk antipathy to change. Sure change is the only constant, but the impediment to that sense of a device as prosthesis is real. Once you’re slowed down by having to think where everything is on the device, it starts getting in the way again, like having to relearn how to walk if you’ve had your left and right feet swapped. When it seems like the upgrade has just been for the sake of it (or worse, because they’ve come up with a more intrusive way to sell you stuff – take note Twitter and Skype) then people are right to be pissed off.

It’s also why mobile learning is so effective. Yes it frees people from being tied to one spot for their learning. I can now read anywhere I’ve got a few minutes, because I’ll have my phone on me whereas I rarely would have a book on me, as they don’t fit in my pocket. Anywhere can then become a learning space (more interstitial spaces). But it’s also because mobile devices aren’t a technology, they’re not even a tool, they’re part of us. We therefore feel connected to them in a way we’re not connected to other things, and whatever takes place with them or through them makes the activities feel more personal, and more engaging and, arguably, a more fully-realised experience, because the experience isn’t just on a screen, it’s physically engaged with. Part of The Body Electric.



On presence, III

OK so, what was, I thought a fairly obscure ramble through ideas on presence, (I actually almost didn’t post anything about it at all) has generated a lot of interest. who’d have thought it? so anyway to re-cap …

Immersion seems to matter for virtual worlds, moreso than for LMSes (aka VLEs) or other technologies. Engagement isn’t the same as immersion, engagement really involves a critical stance apart from the medium being viewed. Presence improves our interaction and motivation in learning in different environments. Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

So what actually is embodiment?

At the moment I’m writing (or should be writing) the introduction to the book Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Introductions are always tricky, because, if you’re introducing a book on a topic similar to one you’ve written before, there will be some overlap with previous introductions. Keeping it fresh forces you to refine your argument each time. With the ULVW intro I’m really bringing VWs down to two unique things, the 3D space and the avatar. The 3D space gives us the opportunity to fully experience the sense of “being there” in the virtual world. The avatar is a basis for us to create social presence and copresence, through being an attachment on which to hang our identities, or a body through which to create an identity, or portray one. Avatars give us a body image in that space.

However, avatars don’t just give us a body image, (we can actually have those to some extent through environments like this, with our gravatars). They also give us a body schema in the virtual world.

I said before that many media are immersive, we feel immersed in them. We feel like we are there. But it’s a formless, and bodiless form of being there. When we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we can feel like the world surrounds us, it absorbs our attention (psychological immersion) or in a 3D movie we can actually see it around us (perceptual immersion). However our bodies don’t actually have a presence in that space. One of my friends was playing Halo for the first time last week, and posted in FB “when i look down i can see my legs. Awesome” and yes, yes it is. Taylor in The social life of avatars used the phrase “through avatars our interaction in virtual worlds is grounded in the practice of the body” which is a fantastic phrase, because it sums it up so well. We have a body in that space. We can express ourselves through movement, we can feel awkward if someone stands too close to us. We have a locus for direct, personal, experience. When you have a body within an online environment, shit just got real.

How does embodiment happen? Well, our body schemata are plastic. For most of us. A prosthesis can feel part of us. The rubber hand illusion can freak us out. Our sense of selfhood is not necessarily located within our physical body, it can be transferred to an extension of that body. Including an avatar. If that happens, that’s embodiment. There’s a neurological basis for this happening. I don’t really understand the biology, but have learnt that if you say left inferior parietal cortex with enough conviction, that doesn’t really matter. But one day I would like to get the authors of this: “How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network Are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents” by Shanti Ganesh, Hein T. van Schie, Floris P. de Lange, Evan Thompson and Danie¨ l H. J. Wigboldus, in the journal Cerebral Cortex to explain it to me in layperson’s terms. Studies also indicate that if you spend time in virtual worlds, when you recall the memory of being there, the same parts of your brain activate as in the real physical world. The strikethrough there is important. Because if we’re talking about experiences (the basis of cognitivist learning theories) then our brains don’t distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Here’s something in New Scientist about that  Biocca pre-empted a lot of this in his paper that I referenced in the first post on this   “increases in self-presence are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development”. If we want our students to experience experiential learning in virtual worlds, then creating a feeling of embodiment is key.

For most of us. Remember I said that? Taking that cue from Biocca, for my PhD I asked groups of students about their experience of presence (all four types), I also asked them about their perceptions of the learning experience (I didn’t have access to the data on whether or not they did learn, so this was the next best thing). One in four of the students reported experiencing very low presence in the environment. Carrie Heeter asked similar questions in a study about 15 years ago now, on people’s sense of embodiment in a video image. 1 in 4 didn’t feel any. I recently did a survey of attendees of a virtual world installation at an art gallery.I asked them how many really didn’t feel they got anything out of it. the answer was 1 in 4. 1 in 4 people aren’t affected by the rubber hand illusion. According to Ganesh et al, 1 in 4 people don’t have a plasticity in body schema, their right inferior parietal cortex dominates, not their left one (see how that sounds authoritative when i say that?). Now I’m not making any claims here, but I think that’s probably a pattern. I’m also very pleased with myself for, I think, being the first person to spot that.

Oh, the other half of my survey. About the students’ perception of learning anything. Almost without exception, the students who experienced presence (in all of its forms) perceived the learning activity as worthwhile. Those that didn’t, didn’t. It was a smallish sample size (36) but the correlation was strong enough to be able to say that this is not by chance. In fact in quantitative data analysis you can do a statistical thing called a chi -squared test to work out what the probability is for this to just be a fluke. It’s called a p value or confidence value. 1 in 20 is ok, 1 in 100 is pretty good. The p value for this is 1 in 860 million (if i did my maths right). So that’s pretty solid.

So why does this matter so much for virtual worlds, when immersion doesn’t matter so much for other media in order to learn? Which was my original question really. Well three things possibly. One is that virtual worlds are so hard to get the hang of, you’ve got to really get something valuable out of it to find them worthwhile. Secondly remember, there are a lot of other forms of presence going on besides immersion. They don’t happen in other environments at all, cannot happen, but to observe them happening around you and not experiencing them yourself must be an alienating experience. Thirdly, if you’re just observing information, reading, writing, downloading uploading, then immersion isn’t important, but with the activities we were doing, where they were based on the learners having experiences, then if those experiences weren’t actually felt because the students weren’t embodied, then they must have been failry hollow activities for them. The fact that that matters is a good thing (it means we’re offering something unique for learners, that they can’t get anywhere else, which is “real” experiential learning). It also means that if we’re using them to their fullest extent, in the most meaningful pedagogical way, that there will be a quarter of the student base who will not get it, and may not benefit from it.

Recent inspirations

Well what am I working on at the moment? Three things this weekend. Yesterday I met with people from mediacore and The Flipped Institute and I hope to be doing more work with them. The Flipped Institute is an onsite focus for all of the discussions around the flipped classroom; the idea of which is to do all of the associative transmission mode stuff outside of the class, so the actual time spent in class can be spent discussing it, building on it, and getting the students to do activities around it. In other words using teachers for what they’re best at. Finally activity-based learning is becoming mainstream (it left me quite Dewey-eyed … see what I did there). I first came across the concept around ’97 / ’98 when the director of a VLE project I was working on (anyone remember Broadnet? It’s now Learnwise) Steve Molyneux produced an online module for his students to learn from, and then used the lecture time to answer their queries about it, and provide one-to-one advice. I think the word “flip” wasn’t around then.

Another thing is a project on creating a bot as an intelligent tutor, and looking at how its design actually will encourage students to engage with it, and how appearance and behaviour influence the affinity the students feel for it; the hypothesis being the greater the affinity the more effective the learning. My job atm? To design the evaluation, which the bot is to conduct itself. :-/

Third thing. Also at the moment I’m working on some stuff for the performance artist Stelarc, and two colleagues, Joff Chafer and Ian Upton. Last year they worked on a performance and installation in Coventry called Extract / Insert and I’m writing it up for a chapter in my most recent book (Making Sense of Space, by Iryna Kuksa and me, coming soon …. ish). The work they did really challenged the distinction between real and virtual, and it was fascinating the way it connected with so many people (and didn’t connect with some too).