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Delightful Digs – Your Brain on Avatars

I enjoy brains. Braaains!!! Well, maybe not in a zombie munching way, but my stories often involve strange things happening in or to my characters’ minds. (See, ma, that neuropsychology degree got put to some use after all!)

One of the best parts about writing is researching. Yes, I’m that kind of nerd. And I get to share the most delightful digs with all of you. And today’s research is about avatars, but not the cute little social media cartoons you may be picturing.

But first, a quick look at a classic psychotherapy method. A long-used technique employed by psychologists to treat internal symptoms is to make the problem external. Better out than in, right?

For example, a person experiencing symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), such as a fear of germs, might work with a trained therapist to give a name to that OCD voice in their head telling them to wash their hands raw. Hello, Germy! The client would then use learned techniques to “boss back” Germy when Germy starts bossing them first. This strategy, making the symptoms into an external entity with a name and then talking sternly to it, is very effective at significantly reducing OCD symptoms in many people who experience this condition.

And then … Professor Julian Leff had the revolutionary idea to use the theory behind this practice in a different way. He invented Avatar Therapy which was a new approach to the treatment of mental health conditions that involved auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), such as in schizophrenia. The therapy was aimed at people who still suffered from persecutory voices despite the best available drug treatment. About 1 in 4 people with this type of schizophrenia still experience persecutory voices even when on medication.

In Avatar Therapy, computer avatars are designed by the patients to give faces to the voices they hear. These avatars then interact with the patient in a simulation using their persecutory voice. Therapists direct the avatars while encouraging patients to challenge (“boss back”) the voice until it gradually comes under the patient’s control. The results, first published in The Lancet (2013), were dramatic. A significant number of patients stopped hearing voices completely.

You can watch Avatar Therapy in action here:

And here:

Brains are fascinating things.

They’re also vulnerable to their environment. In fact, a medical treatment called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has been used to alter brain function for therapeutic benefit, such as lessening symptoms of, and sometimes curing, depression. It’s literally a big magnet that can change how your brain works.

If something as simple as a powerful magnet can alter our brains, our thoughts, our experience of the world for good, what might happen if something external altered our brains for the wrong reasons? And what techniques, like avatars, could we use to protect against, combat, and reverse these changes? These are the thoughts that float in my brain late at night, people, and this became the basis of my book The Xenologist (in progress).

And now maybe you, like me, are thinking about thinking. Braining about brains. How meta is that?!

What I’m Reading

Spellbreaker., Charlie N. Holmberg (47North, 2020). The big idea is that magic, while commonplace, is controlled based on class and race. An orphaned, disenchanted spellbreaker seeks to bring equality and justice. Highlights include a unique magic system and a romantic subplot within the confines of Victorian propriety.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine., Gail Honeyman (Penguin, 2017). I took a break from my usual Sci-Fi/Fantasy reads to check out this 2017 Costa Debut Novel award and 2018 British Book Awards winner. It’s been out for a couple years, I know, but my To-Be-Read pile is perpetually large. The book was lovely. Eleanor is such a quirky/funny/tragic character, I couldn’t put it down.

What I’m Watching

The Expanse. I just learned The Expanse (based on the novels by the writing duo under the pen name James S.A. Corey) is on Prime! I switched from cable midway through Season 3. Discovering I could catch up on all the missed episodes was the best day of 2020 yet. If you’re a fan of high-tension Space Opera, or just want to watch space fights in zero G, I highly recommend this. It even has an alien presence affecting Captain Holden’s mind. What more could I, I mean you, want? The fifth season is only a few weeks away, and I can’t wait. It was recently announced that there will be a sixth season, but that will be the last.

Kid Update

I recently learned that my son’s name on Among Us is Mr. Cheese. I have started referring to him in real life as Mr. Cheese. He is mortified. I am delighted. There is no greater reward as a parent than being as embarrassing as possible.

Cat Update

Someone got a Christmas tree this weekend and will now sleep under it for a month until it’s taken down. Then she’ll stare longingly out the glass door for a couple days, twisting the knife of guilt into my guts. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a yearly ploy to get extra treats.


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