Avatars & Neuroscience

Aside from Cameron’s movie in 3D, Avatar, taking place in the distant world of Pandora, Second Life is a popular virtual alternative, so to speak. According to Gajendra and colleagues (2001), Second Life is an online community, in part created by its members and with its own set of rules, games, communication media and even e-business opportunities.

Needless to say, MMORPGs or Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games are very popular. They typically include some sort of quest to accomplish and tasks to complete, but they likewise fascinate with their social engagement. The virtual worlds of gaming construct an online community, which by itself exercises a range of important socio-cognitive skills.

The very first video games were much more elaborate than contemporary computer graphics, but still, fantasy elements such as the ones  in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons were present. Image:

In psychology and cyberpsychology, virtual worlds have been looked at as having great potential for learning, such as second language acquisition and e-learning. Although fantasy and the real worlds rarely coincide a lot of skills can be transferred from specialized video games, as demonstrated from their widespread use in training and education.

Avatars are the virtual, 2D or 3D animated, graphical representation of the self. Interestingly, researchers Ganesh and coauthors (2011) found that the area associated with self-concept in the 3rd person, coincides with the left inferior parietal lobule, suggesting self-identification with the 3D model, a finding supported by cyberpsychological theories. Additionally, avatar related thinking recruited neural populations in the rostral anterior cingulate gyrus, which the coauthors interpret as evidence of emotional relevance. The work likewise draws attention to brain plasticity, as players and users learn to play the game and accommodate to the new virtual world. Interestingly, the authors also talk about self-adornment and bodily enhancements, reminiscent of the cybernetic extraterrestrial life form the Borg in the Star Trek franchise world. Finally, the publication shows that gamers may be experiencing phenomena akin to heautoscopy (an illusion of perception).


Avatar. Illustration: Koalasareaussiecats.blogspot.com

CyberNeuroscience Video Transcript:

Avatars have been brought to public attention in part by Cameron's movie - Avatar. Still, even long before the motion picture, online social and gaming communities have popularized the phenomenon. Spending time on Websites such as Second Life, or playing games such as World of Warcraft, persons may indeed be experiencing a sort of virtual, alternate life. So much so, that psychologists have tried to shed light on socio-cognitive skills and other internal, mental processes experienced while playing with, or acting through, oneÕs surreal 3D form. In light of such and related developments, the field of cyberpsychology has emerged, while neuroscientists have recorded greater activity in self-referential brain areas of subjects thinking about their Internet selves. Along these lines, researchers found greater involvement of the parietal lobe, as well as, the cingulate gyrus in reflecting on one's avatar. By the same token, gyrus is the singular of gyri, and sulcus of sulci, the ridges and clefts composing the cerebral cortex, respectively.


  • Gajenda, S., Ye, Q., Sun, W. & Daying, Z. (2001). Significance of communication and e-business in Second Life virtual world. Information Technology Research Journal, 1 (1): 1-12.
  • Ganesh, S., van Schie, H. T., de Lange, F. P., Thompson, E. & Wigboldus (2011). How the brain goes virtual: Distinct cortical regions of the person-processing network are involved in self-identification with virtual agents. Cerebral Cortex, 1-9.