Jaron Lanier Yanks my Homunculus

May 18, 2011

While doing research for my book, I realized that I didn’t know squat about the homunculus. Okay, I knew that there were two of them somewhere in the brain: one that corresponds to what your body parts feel and another that corresponds to what your muscles can do. But I didn’t realize that there are really many “homunculi” strewn throughout your brain! There are even homunculi in the cerebellum. I am referring quite loosely to “bodymaps”, all of varying shapes, sizes, and levels of definition. The aggregate of all of them, and their effect, is what authors Blakeslee and Blakeslee call the “Body Mandala“, in their book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.

Jaron Lanier believes that humans of the future will be truly “multihomuncular”. Why? Because with virtual reality, and new flavors of virtual worlds and augmented reality, we will be able to inhabit avatars that do not necessarily look like us. Jaron’s favorite example is the cuttlefish – a mollusk that is able to animate its skin in order to express itself. But he goes further than this. In virtual reality, you might be able to wiggle your toes to make the clouds move. If you do this kind of thing enough times, your homunculi will start to morph to accommodate this part of the environment as an extension of your body. And as far as the brain is concerned, there is no clear difference between a virtual body and a real one.

At Microsoft, Lanier is working on a project called Somatic Computing. His team is exploring the Kinect as a way to translate real body movement into “computational gestures”.

This video shows Lanier being interviewed by a very non-Jaron-Lanier-looking person. At the end he explains how “being” a molecule can help you achieve deep intuition for what it is like to dock with another molecule. This has radical implications for education.

Personally, I find most uses of virtual worlds for education to be droll. There are still universities constructing virtual classrooms with chairs, podiums, and chalk boards (yawn).

A teacher should be able to demonstrate the chemistry of water by turning into a water molecule. Not only that, the teacher should be able to control all the students’ virtual cameras to swoop into the scene. Even better: all the students should be able to turn themselves into hydrophylic molecules and dance with the teacher. Not trying to get kinky here. Just sayin’.

The current popular understanding of virtual worlds is quite unimaginative. And its true potential to expand minds and offer shared experiences has barely been tapped. Lanier has a following and the publicity to maybe help shift the conversation back to what it was in those early hippy days when he and his friends were trying this stuff out for the first time.

Prepare for mind expansion. Without acid.