Identity and Expression, Second Life

Creativity and Mental Health: Do Your Dopamine Levels Explain Why You’re in Second Life?

The typical Second Life creator quite likely shares brain chemistry with schizophrenics, although whether this explains the duality of avatar/physical identity I’ll leave for the scientists to sort out.

And while in some ways this might seem like a joke, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the qualities inherent in the act creating in a virtual world, and whether this truly has an impact on brain chemistry.

But maybe I’ve been putting the cart before the horse – it’s not that Second Life and virtual worlds changes your brain chemistry, but rather people with a certain neurochemistry tend to be attracted to creating content and having an avatar.

The Karolinska Institutet reports that creativity is linked to mental health:

New research shows a possible explanation for the link between mental health and creativity. By studying receptors in the brain, researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet have managed to show that the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia.

High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people. And now the correlation between creativity and mental health has scientific backing.

The New York Times recently reported on creativity as well, and quoted Rex Jung that creativity is like, well, pornography (which might explain a lot of, um, activity in Second Life as well):

Among the tests for creativity, the article highlights a few presented by Dr. Jung’s team: Imagine people could instantly change their sex, or imagine clouds had strings; what would be the implications?

If that doesn’t sound like Second Life I don’t know what does. As does this:

“The brain appears to be an efficient superhighway that gets you from Point A to Point B” when it comes to intelligence, Dr. Jung explained. “But in the regions of the brain related to creativity, there appears to be lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

Sounds a lot like a typical evening in Second Life – detours and meandering byways.

The classic scientific work on the impact of having an avatar seems to be largely based around the idea that avatar identity and interacting in a virtual world can have an impact on our ‘real’ lives. A thinner avatar can make dieting more effective, or learning how to use the viewer can enhance our cognitive function.

But there might be something to the idea as well that Second Life also tends to select for individuals who are able to detour and meander….which would beg the question: for all the focus on social media or making virtual worlds more ‘user friendly’, there may be a neurological basis for why some people stay and some people leave and perform mouse clicks in Farmville – the people who stay are just crazy enough to feel like they’re home.


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