Two years have passed since My professor and I have started working on the idea of a Transformative Experience design. Where are we now? What do we plan to do?
Carry on reading this article from by professor and many of your questions (not all!..suspense!) will be answered…
In the last couple of years, I and my team have been intensively working on a new research program in Positive Technology: Transformative Experience Design.
In short, the goal of this project is to understand how virtual reality, brain-based technologies and the language of arts can support transformative experiences, that is, emotional experiences that promote deep personal change.
About Transformative Experience Design..
As noted by Miller and C’de Baca, there are experiences in life that are able to generate profound and long-lasting shifts in core beliefs and attitudes, including subjective self-transformation. These experiences have the capacity of changing not only what individuals know and value, but also how they see the world.
According to Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory, these experiences can be triggered by a “disorienting dilemma” usually related to a life crisis or major life transition (e.g., death, illness, separation, or divorce), which forces individuals to critically examine and eventually revise their core assumptions and beliefs. The outcome of a transformative experience is a significant and permanent change in the expectations – mindsets, perspectives and habits of mind – through which we filter and make sense of the world. For these characteristics, transformative experiences are gaining increasing attention not only in psychology and neuroscience, but also in philosophy.
From a psychological perspective, transformative change is often associated to specific experiential states, defined “self-transcendence experiences”. These are transient mental states that allow individuals experiencing something greater of themselves, reflecting on deeper dimensions of their existence and shaping lasting spiritual beliefs. These experiences encompass several mental states, including flow, positive emotions such as awe and elevation, “peak” experiences, “mystical” experiences and mindfulness (for a review, see Yaden et al.). Although the phenomenological profile of these experiential states can vary significantly in terms of quality and intensity, they are characterized by a diminished sense of self and increased feelings of connectedness to other people and one’s surroundings. Previous research has shown that self-transcendent experiences are important sources of positive psychological outcomes, including increased meaning in life, positive mood and life satisfaction, positive behavior change, spiritual development and pro-social attitudes.
One potentially interesting question related to self-transcendent experiences concerns whether, and to which extent, these mental states can be invited or elicited by means of interactive technologies. This question lies at the center of a new research program – Transformative Experience Design (TED) – which has a two-fold aims:
- to systematically investigate the phenomenological and neuro-cognitive aspects of self-transcendent experiences, as well as their implications for individual growth and psychological wellbeing; and
- to translate such knowledge into a tentative set of design principles for developing “e-experiences” that support meaning in life and personal growth.
The three pillars of TED: virtual reality, arts and neurotechnologies
I have identified three possible assets that can be combined to achieve this goal:
- The first strategy concerns the use of advanced simulation technologies, such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality, as the elective medium to generate controlled alteration of perceptual, motor and cognitive processes.
- The second asset regards the use of the language of arts to create emotionally-compelling storytelling scenarios.
- The third and final element of TED concerns the use of brain-based technologies, such as brain stimulation and bio/neurofeedback, to modulate neuro-physiological processes underlying self-transcendence mental states, using a closed-loop approach.
The central assumption of TED is that the combination of these means provides a broad spectrum of transformative possibilities, which include, for example, “what it is like” to embody another self or another life form, simulating peculiar neurological phenomena like synesthesia or out-of-body experiences, and altering time and space perception.
The safe and controlled use of these e-experiences hold the potential to facilitate self-knowledge and self-understanding, foster creative expression, develop new skills, and recognize and learn the value of others.
Example of TED research projects
Although TED is a recent research program, we are building a fast-growing community of researchers, artists and developers to shape the next generation of transformative experiences. Here is a list of recent projects and publications related to TED in different application contexts.
The Emotional Labyrinth
In this project I teamed with Sergi Bermudez i Badia and Mónica S. Cameirão from Madera Interactive Technologies Institute to realize the first example of emotionally-adaptive virtual reality application for mental health. So far, virtual reality applications in wellbeing and therapy have typically been based on pre-designed objects and spaces. In this project, we suggest a different approach, in which the content of a virtual world is procedurally generated at runtime (that is, through algorithmic means) according to the user’s affective responses. To demonstrate the concept, we developed a first prototype using Unity: the “Emotional Labyrinth”. In this VR experience, the user walks through a endless maze, whose structure and contents are automatically generated according to four basic emotional states: joy, sadness, anger and fear.
During navigation, affective states are dynamically represented through pictures, music, and animated visual metaphors chosen to represent and induce emotional states.
The underlying hypothesis is that exposing users to multimodal representations of their affective states can create a feedback loop that supports emotional self-awareness and fosters more effective emotional regulation strategies. We carried out a first study to (i) assess the effectiveness of the selected metaphors in inducing target emotions, and (ii) identify relevant psycho-physiological markers of the emotional experience generated by the labyrinth. Results showed that the Emotional Labyrinth is overall a pleasant experience in which the proposed procedural content generation can induce distinctive psycho-physiological patterns, generally coherent with the meaning of the metaphors used in the labyrinth design. Further, collected psycho-physiological responses such as electrocardiography, respiration, electrodermal activity, and electromyography are used to generate computational models of users’ reported experience. These models enable the future implementation of the closed loop mechanism to adapt the Labyrinth procedurally to the users’ affective state.
Awe in Virtual Reality
Awe is a compelling emotional experience with philosophical roots in the domain of aesthetics and religious or spiritual experiences. Both Edmund Burke’s (1759/1970 and Immanuel Kant’s (1764/2007) analyses of the sublime as a compelling experience that transcends one’s perception of beauty to something more profound are couched in terms that seem synonymous with the modern understanding of awe.
The contemporary psychological understanding of awe comes largely from a foundational article written by Keltner and Haidt (2003). According to their conceptualization, awe experiences encompass two key appraisals: the perception of vastness and the need to mentally attempt to accommodate this vastness into existing mental schemas.
Crucially, research has shown that experiencing awe is associated with positive transformative changes at both psychological and physical levels (e.g., Shiota et al., 2007; Schneider, 2009; Stellar et al., 2015). For example, awe can change our perspective toward even unknown others thus increasing our generous attitude toward them (Piff et al., 2015; Prade and Saroglou, 2016) and reducing aggressive behaviors (Yang et al., 2016). Generally, awe broadens our attentional focus (Sung and Yih, 2015), and extends time perception (Rudd et al., 2012). Furthermore, this emotion protects our immunity system against chronic and cardiovascular diseases and enhance our satisfaction toward life (Krause and Hayward, 2015; Stellar et al., 2015).
Considering the transformative potential of awe, I and my doctoral student Alice Chirico focused on how to elicit intense feelings of this complex emotion using virtual reality. To this end, we modeled three immersive virtual environments (i.e., a forest including tall trees; a chain of mountains; and an earth view from deep space) designed to induce a feeling of perceptual vastness. As hypothesized, the three target environments induced a significantly greater awe than a “neutral” virtual environment (a park consisting of a green clearing with very few trees and some flowers). Full details of this study are reported here.
In another study, we examined the potential of VR-induced awe to foster creativity. To this end, we exposed participants both to an awe-inducing 3D-video and to a neutral one in a within-subject design. After each stimulation condition, participants reported the intensity and type of perceived emotion and completed two verbal tasks of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT; Torrance, 1974), a standardized test to measure creativity performance. Results showed that awe positively affected key creativity components—fluidity, flexibility, and elaboration measured by the TTCT subtest—compared to a neutral stimulus, suggesting that (i) awe has a potential for boosting creativity, and (ii) VR is a powerful awe-inducing medium that can be used in different application contexts (i.e., educational, clinical etc.) where this emotion can make a difference.
However, not only graphical 3D environments can be used to induce awe; in another study, we showed that also 360° videos depicting vast natural scenarios are powerful stimuli to induce intense feelings of this complex emotion.
Immersive storytelling for psychotherapy and mental wellbeing
Growing research evidence indicates that VR can be effectively integrated in psychotherapyto treat a number of clinical conditions, including anxiety disorders, pain disorders and PTSD. In this context, VR is mostly used as simulative tool for controlled exposure to critical/fearful situations. The possibility of presenting realistic controlled stimuli and, simultaneously, of monitoring the responses generated by the user offers a considerable advantage over real experiences.
However, the most interesting potential of VR resides in its capacity of creating compelling immersive storytelling experiences. As recently noted by Brenda Wiederhold:
“Virtual training simulations, documentaries, and experiences will, however, only be as effective as the emotions they spark in the viewer. To reach that point, the VR industry is faced with two obstacles: creating content that is enjoyable and engaging, and encouraging adoption of the medium among consumers. Perhaps the key to both problems is the recognition that users are not passive consumers of VR content. Rather, they bring their own thoughts, needs, and emotions to the worlds they inhabit. Successful stories challenge those conceptions, invite users to engage with the material, and recognize the power of untethering users from their physical world and throwing them into another. That isn’t just the power of VR—it’s the power of storytelling as a whole.”
The emergence of immersive storytelling introduces the possibility of using VR in mental health from a different rationale than virtual reality-based exposure therapy. In this novel rationale, immersive stories, lived from a first-person perspective, provide the patient the opportunity of engaging emotionally with metaphoric narratives, eliciting new insights and meaning-making related to viewers’ personal world views.
To explore this new perspective, I have been collaborating with the Italian startup Become to test the potential of transformative immersive storytelling in mental health and wellbeing. An intriguing aspect of this strategy is that, in contrast with conventional virtual-reality exposure therapy, which is mostly used in combination with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy interventions, immersive storytelling scenarios can be integrated in any therapeutic model, since all kinds of psychotherapy involve some form of ‘storytelling’.
In this project, we are interested in understanding, for example, whether the integration of immersive stories in the therapeutic setting can enhance the efficacy of the intervention and facilitate patients in expressing their inner thoughts, feelings, and life experiences.
Are you a researcher, a developer, or an artist interested in collaborating in TED projects? Here is how:
- Drop an email at: email@example.com
- Sign into ResearchGate and visit Transformative Experience Design project’s page
- Have a look at the existing projects and publications to find out which TED research line is more interesting to you.
 Miller, W. R., & C’de Baca, J. (2001). Quantum change: When epiphanies and sudden insights transform ordinary lives. New York: Guilford Press.
 Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Jr., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology, 21(2), 143-160.
 Gaggioli, A. (2016). Transformative Experience Design. In Human Computer Confluence. Transforming Human Experience Through Symbiotic Technologies, eds A. Gaggioli, A. Ferscha, G. Riva, S. Dunne, and I. Viaud-Delmon (Berlin: De Gruyter Open), 96–121.