A while ago, I wrote an article, ‘Virtual Sex and the Gorilla’, in which I tried to find answers to the following question: Why is it that sex in Second Life can be appealing, despite the fact that the mechanics of it are decidedly unerotic? I thought I might return to that question with some more ideas.


Recently, NewScientist revealed some interesting studies about the affect words have on the brain. The written word also plays a central role in SL sex. As Wagner James Au explained in his book, ‘The Making of Second Life’, “any genuinely erotic heat [is] passed along through private instant messaging”. Forget movie sci-fi images of people in body suits cavorting with avatars in fully immersive virtual environments, what SL sex most resembles is impromptu co-authored erotic literature. The extent to which the encounter can be called great sex is determined by how well the two halves of the story (one part written by you, the other by your partner) fit together. When two people are really tuned-in to one another’s emotions, desires, intentions, etc, the two halves of the narrative will fit seamlessly together, sometimes to the extent that it almost feels like your partner is inside your head, able to read your mind. On the other hand, when two people fail to communicate, the two halves may seem disjointed. You could almost say that bad sex in SL is determined by how often you have to delete and revise what you were thinking/typing, because what your partner just sent is in total contrast to what you thought you were doing, and where the encounter was at this point in time (for example, in your mind the two of you were kissing each other’s lips, whereas he describes this moment as involving toe sucking). 

Anyway, that study. According to NewScientist, “every time we hear a word, the brain seems to simulate the actions associated with its meaning. When someone hears the word ‘climb’ for example, it activates the same neural regions that trigger our muscles to pull our weight up a tree”. This reminds me of another study I heard about a couple of years ago, in which people’s brains were scanned while they read descriptions of disgusting things. This triggered activity in areas of the brain that would light up if that person was actually experiencing something disgusting.

If the first study applies to words we read as well as hear, and the second applies to all sensations and emotions and not just disgust, that might further explain the appeal of SL sex. When you think about it, this makes sense. How else could one grasp the meaning of words- the actions, sensations, and emotions they convey- other than by recreating those actions, emotions and sensations in your mind? I am not suggesting that this would be a perfect recreation, for if that were the case then presumably it would be impossible to distinguish between a story we read and an event we experienced. But I do suggest this elevates SL sex beyond placing your hands on a cold, plastic, impersonal keyboard and staring at animated avatars.


I do not want to say more about that. I want to move on to how memory might play a part. The thing with memory is, it is quite common for people to misunderstand how it works. This was shown to be the case in a national survey of 1,500 people, conducted in 2009 by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (the same guys responsible for the ‘Invisible Gorilla’ experiment). Respondents were asked to read various statements about memory and rate them as being either ‘true’ or ‘false’. Here is a couple of examples:

‘Once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory doesn’t change’.

‘Human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later’.

47% of respondents believed the first statement was true, and 67% thought the second was correct. However, what we know about how the mind works from neuroscientific and psychological studies shows neither statement can be true. The brain does not devote energy and space to storing every detail of our lives. Memory relies on other tricks.

We can get a sense of what these tricks might be by looking at an experiment designed to reveal how human memory really works. This experiment was conducted by two psychologists, William Brewer and James Freyens. Subjects were asked to wait in a typical student office for about a minute. This, they were told, was because the previous participant had not yet completed the task. About thirty seconds, the person waiting in the office was lead to another room, where they were unexpectedly asked to write down a list of the contents of the office they had just come from. 30% recalled seeing books, and 10% believed the office contained file cabinets. But this office was rather unusual in that it actually contained neither. 

So what does that tell us? It shows that memory does not entail encoding everything in detail. Instead, it takes what we have seen or heard and associates it with what we already know. Simons and Chabris put it like this:

‘What is stored in memory is not an exact replica of reality, but a recreation of it… each time we recall a memory, we integrate whatever details we do remember with our expectations of what we should remember’. What is most relevant for our purposes, though, is that this shows the mind can recall details that were not actually present at the time. So, in principle at least, when you recall sex in SL the mind may add details, perhaps including sensations and feelings that the VR technology of today cannot simulate.

But where do those details come from? Well, another thing about memory, is that it is rather inaccurate to talk about ‘a’ memory. Anyone who has read a book about how the mind works has probably encountered the slogan, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. The technical term for this is ‘Long Term Potentiation’ or LTP. If a neuron should fire strongly and frequently enough, this will affect its neighbouring neurons. It might be an inhibitory effect- the neuron might tell its neighbours not to fire. But, at other times, neighbouring neurons will fire in synchronised bursts. Provided this synchronous firing is rapid, energetic, and sustained, it will enter your conscious experience as a sensation, thought, or emotion. And, particularly energetic activity will cause physical changes in the neurons involved. These alterations strengthen the links between simultaneously firing neurons, making it more likely that when one neuron fires, the others will fire too. According to Rita Carter, “a memory, then, is a pattern of neural firing that the brain produces easily because it has done it before”.


The brain encodes memories in a web-like way. That is why I said it is inaccurate to think of individual memory. Each element of a memory can be thought of as a node connected to others. The connection strength can vary: some nodes are very strongly connected, whereas others are not directly connected at all. But, so long as they are all part of the same network, whenever you jog one memory, other memories connected to it also get jogged, as will the memories that connect to them, and so on. The further you go from the initial recollection, the weaker the jogging effect is, but there is always a chance that one memory will bring to mind another, so long as they are part of the same web. This tends to be the case when one memory has something in common with another. 

Dr Joe T. Tsien uses a different visual image to describe memories, but the essential details remain the same:

“The brain relies on memory-encoding cliques to record and extract different features of the same event, and it essentially arranges the information relating to a given event into a pyramid whose levels are arranged hierarchically from the most general, abstract features to the most specific. We also believe that each such pyramid can be thought of as a component of a polyhedron that represents all events falling into a shared category”.

Regardless of whether you imagine memory as a node in a web, or a component of a pyramid that is itself part of a polygon, the point remains that every recollection relies on integrating information from other experiences. For that reason, no two people can have the exact same memory of a past event. Their unique life experience colors such events in unique ways. According to Dr Tsien, ‘because the memory code is categorical and hierarchical, representing new memories might simply involve substituting the specific cliques that form the tops of the memory pyramid”.


So, let us suppose that Christopher (the person who runs a blog I ocassionally write for)  lets his avatar, Koishan, have a virtual honeymoon with Lydia following their upcoming wedding. If the sex was recalled purely in terms of what actually happened  (we are assuming this takes place entirely in SL), the memory would be rather dull. However, we now know this would not be the case. Instead, the mind would be integrating information from other experiences, other memories, ranging from the most general, abstract features we can associate with intimate encounters (‘close’, ‘warm’, ‘soft’….) to more specific details, such as the way a woman’s lips taste or how firm a man’s biceps are when flexed or relaxed. In ‘Koishan’s’ case there is an extra advantage in that Christopher and ‘Lydia’ (or whoever puppeteers her avatar) have actually met and have a relationship in real life. That means a virtual sexual encounter could integrate some really specific information, such as the particular way Lydia herself kisses.

In conclusion, then, it is possible for SL sex to transcend its rather dull objective qualities thanks to various factors that I have talked about here, and in other essays. These factors are:

1: The extent to which the encounter is part of a loving relationship developed within SL. In short, the more you mean to one another, the more meaningful intimate acts will seem (my ‘Lovegame’ series has more to say on this).

2: The mind’s ability to fill in missing details by integrating information from associated, or partially associated, experiences.

3: The mind’s ability to edit out details you were distracted from at the time (see ‘VR Sex and the Invisible Gorilla’).

4: ‘Avatar Projection’. This is part of a general ability the mind has; the ability to expand one’s ‘body map’ to include objects outside of the body. This typically happens when there is a noticeable correlation between an intention and a change in that object. You desire to turn left, which is translated into various actions by your body, which in turn results in the car turning left. The mind comes to believe that the car is your body. Psychologists point out that we tend to say ‘you hit me’ rather than ‘you hit the car I am driving’. Same thing applies to avatars. Many people (among them the cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson) have noted that people tend to stand more or less the same distance apart in virtual worlds as they normally do in real life. We are taking ancient social rules and customs and applying them to the brave new world of virtual places. When one avatar enters the private, personal space of another and that entry is welcomed and invited rather than invaded without permission ( and, btw, ‘private’ and ‘personal’ have meaning in the context of pure virtual relationships and do not necessarily relate to anything ‘RL’) that act carries with it as much meaning as it would if it had happened ‘for real’. 

5: The power of words to simulate actions, sensations and emotions in our mind.

I believe these 5 things combined are what elevates the subjective quality of SL sex. Elevated to the point where it is better than the real thing? No, I would not go that far, although I did once see a documentary in which a woman all but abandoned a real marriage in favour of a virtual love affair within SL (she eventually met the man with whom she had a virtual affair, whereupon disappointment set in because the real guy did not quite live up to the fantasy of his avatar).  I guess, though, that most people would suppose the marriage had some real problems, rather than believe anybody could prefer an SL-based relationship over a successful marriage. But, anyway, we were never asking if SL sex can be better than the real thing (unless the real thing is very dissatisfying, which is certainly possible, then no), we were asking how and why it can be good at all. I have met people that are sceptical that this could ever be the case (‘what is the point of SL sex? Lol!’). Hopefully, this essay explained how and why it can be appealing.
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