Publication 2343

Shanti Ganesh, van Schie H. T., de Lange F. P., Thompson E. & Wigboldus D. H. J. (2012) How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents. Cerebral Cortex 22: 1577–1585. Fulltext at
Millions of people worldwide engage in online role-playing with their avatar, a virtual agent that represents the self. Previous behavioral studies have indicated that many gamers identify more strongly with their avatar than with their biological self. Through their avatar, gamers develop social networks and learn new social-cognitive skills. The cognitive neurosciences have yet to identify the neural processes that underlie self-identification with these virtual agents. We applied functional neuroimaging to 22 long-term online gamers and 21 nongaming controls, while they rated personality traits of self, avatar, and familiar others. Strikingly, neuroimaging data revealed greater avatar-referential cortical activity in the left inferior parietal lobe, a region associated with self-identification from a third-person perspective. The magnitude of this brain activity correlated positively with the propensity to incorporate external body enhancements into one’s bodily identity. Avatar-referencing furthermore recruited greater activity in the rostral anterior cingulate gyrus, suggesting relatively greater emotional self-involvement with one’s avatar. Post-scanning behavioral data revealed superior recognition memory for avatar relative to others. Interestingly, memory for avatar positively covaried with play duration. These findings significantly advance our knowledge about the brain’s plasticity to self-identify with virtual agents and the human cognitive-affective potential to live and learn in virtual worlds.


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