This is Fran, an 85 year old woman who plays Second Life as an avatar named Fran Seranade, and while that’s interesting in itself, many other senior citizens like her are known to be active in SL. Here is the truly extraordinary thing: For over 7 years, Fran has been afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system afflicting millions around the world, including actor Michael J. Fox and sports legend Muhammed Ali. In Fran’s case, Parkinson’s has made it difficult for her to stand from a sitting position, and maintain her balance while upright. But now Fran reports she’s gained significant recovery of physical movement -- as a direct consequence of her activity in Second Life.
How did this happen? According to her, she originally used Second Life just as a fun way to socialize, but “[a]fter awhile I began to identify with my avatar and feel like I was actually doing what she was doing.” On one occasion, she played with some tai chi meditation animations for her avatar (that’s her below), and this was a turning point:
“As I watched her,” as she tells me through e-mail, “I could actually feel the movements within my body as if I were actually doing tai chi in my physical life (which is not possible for me).” She made this avatar-based tai chi a daily routine while meditating, and then sensed it was having an impact on herself:
“For a year I have sat and slept in a motorized lounge chair that brings me to a standing position when I push a button.” After weeks of watching her avatar practice tai chi, however, “I could feel that my body had become stronger.” Until a day came where she was able to stand without motorized assistance. “Now,” she says, “I can go from a sitting to standing position without even using my arms to push against the arm rests. This has been absolutely thrilling for me.”
This isn’t the only apparent physical effect spurred by her Second Life usage, for she reports it’s also helped her with physical equilibrium: “For years when going down a curb to get into a car I would put my hand on the car for balance. One day I said to myself, ‘I know I can step down from this curb and keep my balance because I have seen my avatar do it.’” She succeeded at doing just that. And, she adds, “I have maintained that ability for two years now.”
These are very dramatic claims, but they first came to me through my friend Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine and fellow with the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing. Lead author of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds from Princeton Press, Tom’s among the most well-respected academics studying the social implications of virtual worlds, particularly Second Life.
While researching the way disabled people use virtual worlds, he met Fran and her daughter Barbara, who now leads a Second Life-based support group for Parkinson’s. (Her avatar name is Barbie Alchemi.) Tom’s met both Fran and Barbara in real life, and recorded video of Fran's physical recovery, and believes her condition is worth studying further. In this he’s joined by Donna Z. Davis (PhD), an Assistant Professor at University of Oregon (avatar name: Tredi Felisimo), who recently received a research grant to further study the physical and psychological effects of virtual worlds like Second Life on people with Parkinson’s. They have a tentative theory for why Fran's recovery might be possible:
Meeting with Barbara, Tom, & Donna's SL avatars at Parkinson's support sim Solace Lake
“While neither Tom nor I are medical researchers, we are currently communicating with a number of neuroscientists who are very interested in this work,” Dr. Davis tells me. “We believe that Fran's experience may be similar to results in other current research being conducted with individuals with brain disorders or injury where, by watching yourself -- or your avatar -- you are essentially retraining the mind to function. There is evidence from studies of neuroplasticity and the function of mirror neurons that people may be able to ‘rewire’ the mind to regain neurological function. This is not unlike the long standing practice that athletes have used who have been taught to visualize themselves in competition in order to make their movements more fluid and precise.”
Now many researchers like her and Boellstorff are conducting extensive studies in Second Life, hoping (among other things) to learn more about the phenomenon Fran reports. “[W]e anticipate having partnerships with a number of medical researchers in the very near future,” she says, and they will bring in volunteers with Parkinson’s to try the avatar-driven path to recovery Fran experienced: "Fran reported a change in her motor function after a very short amount of time of watching her avatar doing tai chi. If Fran's experience is common, we could have tentative conclusions very quickly. However, there are many factors we have to consider before we could even begin to generalize results.”
It’s important to echo Dr. Davis’ cautionary note. “Fran is a truly remarkable and resilient woman who refuses to be defined by Parkinson's or by her age,” as she explains. “Her approach to life might be very influential in her personal results.” For that matter, Second Life remains extremely difficult for most people to use, so even if Fran’s experience could apply to others, SL itself might still be inaccessible to many of them. “We have to be very cognizant and compassionate about individuals who may not only find computers and the Internet challenging or intimidating, but may also have challenges with simply operating a keyboard and mouse.” And that’s only the start. For their research, she adds, “We anticipate having support in place to address those concerns.”
Fran’s daughter Barbara will also qualify what has happened to her mother. “Some of her Parkinson's symptoms have continued to progress, and she has continued to age.” In that regard, she adds, “SL certainly is not a ‘cure’.” But beyond the physical improvements are other advantages: “She feels and thinks young, so it is thrilling for her to watch her avatar run and dance again (very much like the movie Avatar). She loves meeting fascinating people from all over the world. Fortunately she is a basically happy person and has never been depressed, but SL increases the joy in her life.”
Or as Fran herself puts it to me: “I have no idea if anyone else will be able to identify with their avatar and get the results that I have, but I have found Second Life to be very beneficial to me on so many levels.”
Boellstorff notes that many disabled people have found value in virtual worlds, not just those suffering from Parkinson’s, but from strokes, autism, and phobias too. In his research, he’s heard the following sentiment come from many of them: "I'm not my body. I'm not the same thing as my body." Because as their physical body begins to fail them, in some ways their virtual body begins to seem more real than the one they were born with. "It's not at all about denying the body or escaping the body,” as Boellstorff argues, “but expanding what the body can mean." For him, then, the experience of the disabled in virtual worlds presents "a kind of the tip of the iceberg effect about what it means to have a body".
And, one might add, if the particular experience of Fran is broadly relevant to the real lives of people with Parkinson’s, like her, the implications may be far larger still. As for Fran Seranade, you may meet her in a ballroom in Second Life, whirling away in an opulent evening gown, young, beautiful, vibrant, a form quite different from her form in the material world now, but perhaps more true to who she really is.
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