© 2016 Andrea Gagg ioli
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6 Transformative Experience Design
Abstract: Until now, information and communication technologies have been mostly
conceived as a mean to support human activities – communication, productivity,
leisure. However, as the sophistication of digital tools increases, researchers are start-
ing to consider their potential role in supporting the fullfilment of higher human
needs, such as self-actualization and self-transcendence. In this chapter, I introduce
Transformative Experience Design (TED), a conceptual framework for exploring
how next-generation interactive technologies might be used to support long-lasting
changes in the self-world. At the center of this framework is the elicitation of transfor-
mative experiences, which are experiences designed to facilitate an epistemic expan-
sion through the (controlled) alteration of sensorial, perceptual, cognitive and affec-
Keywords: Transformative Experience, Complex Systems, Virtual Reality, Neurosci-
I have experienced several transformative moments in my life. The first that comes
to my mind occurred when I was as young adolescent, as I watched the movie “Dead
Poets Society”. Another transformative moment occurred when I was in my twenties,
as I first surfed the web using the then-popular Netscape Navigator browser. In both
circumstances, I felt that I was discovering new truths about myself and new purpose
in life. These experiences deeply affected my perspective on the world, changing my
values and beliefs. Simply put, after these experiences I was not the same person I
had been before. Retrospectively, I can say that without these milestone experiences,
I would probably not be the person I am today.
How do transformative experiences occur? Do they play a role in our personal
development? And if they do, can we design technologies that support them?
Throughout time and across cultures, human beings have developed a number
of transformative practices to support personal growth. These include, for example,
meditation, hypnosis, and several techniques to induce altered states of conscious-
ness (Tart, 1972). However, other media such as plays, storytelling, imagery, music,
films and paintings can also be regarded as possibile means to elicit transformative
experiences (Gaylinn, 2005).
In the rest of this chapter, I will introduce Transformative Experience Design
(TED) as a new conceptual framework for the design of self-actualization experiences.
In the theoretical introduction, I draw on the existing literature to argue three key
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98 Transformative Experience Design
theses that are central to the development of TED. First, a transformative experience
is a sudden and profound change in the self-world, which has peculiar phenome-
nological features that distinguish it from linear and gradual psychological change.
Second, a transformative experience has an epistemic dimension and a personal
dimension: not only it changes what you know, it also changes how you experience
being yourself. Third, a transformative experience can be modelled as an emergent
phenomenon that results from complex self-organization dynamics. In the method-
ological section that follows, I build up on these conceptual pillars to explore possible
principles and ways in which transformative experiences may be invited or elicited
combining interactive technologies, cognitive neuroscience and art.
6.2 Transformation is Different From Gradual Change
Most experiences of everyday life are mundane and tend to be repeated over time.
However, in addition to these ordinary moments, there exists a special category
of experiences – transformative experiences – which can result in profound and
longlasting restructuration of our worldview (Miller & C’de Baca, 2001). The charac-
teristics of these experiences, which can take the form of an epiphany or a sudden
insight, are reported to be remarkably consistent across cultures. Their phenomeno-
logical profile often encompasses a perception of truth, a synthesis of conflicting
ideas and emotions, and a new sense of order and beauty. A further distinguishing
feature of a transformative experience is a perception of discontinuity between the
present and the past self, in terms of beliefs, character, identity, and interpersonal
relationships. By virtue of this radical transformation of the self-world, the individual
can find new meaning in life, turning his view in a totally new direction. Despite the
abundance of historical, anthropological and psychological evidence of the occur-
rence of transformative experiences across cultures, these moments represent one of
the least understood mechanism of human change (C’De Baca & Wilbourne, 2004).
William James pioneered the exploration of transformative experience while
examining the phenomenon of religious conversions. In his work The Varieties of
Religious Experience (James, 1902), he distinguished two types of conversions: a voli-
tional type, in which “the regenerative change is usually gradual, and consists in the
building up, piece by piece, of a new set of moral and spiritual habits” (p. 189), and a
self-surrender type, unconscious and involuntary, in which “the subconscious effects
are more abundant and often startling” (p. 191). According to James, the self-surren-
der type is characterized by an intense struggle toward an aspiration that is perceived
as true and right, as well as a resistance to its actualization; this struggle is eventually
resolved when the person “surrenders” (i.e., stop resisting).
Abraham Maslow introduced the term “peak experience” to describe a moment of
elevated inspiration and enhanced well-being (Maslow, 1954). According to Maslow,
a peak experience can permanently affect one’s attitude toward life, even if it never
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 99
happens again. However, differently from James, Maslow noted that peak experiences
are not necessarily mystical or religious in the supernaturalistic sense. To investigate
the characteristics of peak experiences, Maslow examined personal interviews, per-
sonal reports and surveys of mystical, religious and artistic literature (Maslow, 1964).
This analysis generated a list of characterizing features of peak experiences, including
disorientation in space and time; ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a percep-
tion that the world is good, beautiful, and desirable; feeling passive, receptive, and
humble; a sense that polarities and dichotomies have been transcended or resolved;
and feelings of being lucky, fortunate, or graced. After a peak experience, the indi-
vidual may have enjoy several beneficial effects, including a more positive view of
the self, other people, and the world, as well as renewed meaning in life. Maslow con-
tended that peak experiences are perceived as a state of great value and significance
for the life of the individual and play a chief role in the self-actualization process.
According to Maslow, self-actualization refers to “the desire for self-fulfillment” or
“the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is
capable of becoming” (1954, pp. 92–93). Maslow considered self-actualization to be
the universal need for personal growth and discovery that is present throughout a
person’s life (Maslow, 1962b). He argued that self-actualization is the apex of the moti-
vation hierarchy, and it can be achieved only after the lower needs – physiological,
safety, love and belongingness, and esteem needs – have been reasonably satisfied
(Maslow, 1962a). As he noted: “When we are well and healthy and adequately fulfill-
ing the concept ‘Human Being’ then experiences of transcendence should in principle
be commonplace” (p. 32). Maslow (1954) identified the following key characteristics
of self-actualized individuals: accurate, unbiased perception of reality; greater accep-
tance of the self and the others; nonhostile sense of humor; spontaneity; task cen-
tering; autonomy; need for privacy; sympathy for humankind; intimate relationships
with a few, specially loved people; democratic character structure; discrimination
between means and ends; creativeness; resistance to enculturation; and peak experi-
ence. He argued that peak experiences can help people to change and grow, overcome
emotional blocks, and achieve a stronger sense of identity and fulfillment. According
to Maslow, peak experiences can be triggered by specific settings and activities, such
as listening to music, being in nature (particularly in association with water, wild
animals, sunsets, and mountains), meditation, prayer, deep relaxation, and physical
accomplishment (Maslow, 1964).
A common characteristic of peak experiences is that they often involve a height-
ened sense of awe, a multifaceted emotion in which fear is blended with astonish-
ment, admiration and wonder. Despite the fact that awe is not included as one of Eck-
man’s basic emotions (Coghlan, Buckley, & Weaver, 2012; Ekman, 1992), this feeling
has been regarded as a “foundational human experience that defines the human
existence” (Schneider, 2011). In a seminal article, Keltner and Haidt (Keltner & Haidt,
2003) identified two prototypical elicitors of awe: perceived vastness (something that
is experienced as being much larger than the self’s ordinary frame of reference) and
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100 Transformative Experience Design
a need for accommodation, defined as an “inability to assimilate an experience into
current mental structures” (p. 304). Accommodation refers to the Piagetian process of
adjusting cognitive schemas that cannot assimilate a new experience (Piaget & Inhel-
der, 1969). According to Keltner and Haidt, accomodation can be either successful,
leading to an enlightening experience (associated with an expansion of one’s frame of
reference); or unsuccessful (when one fails to understand), leading to terrifying and
upsetting feelings. Keltner and Haidt suggest that nature, supernatural experiences,
and being in the presence of powerful or celebrated individuals are frequent elicitors
of awe; however, human arts and artifact – such as songs, symphonies, movies, plays,
paintings and architectural buildings (skyscrapers, cathedrals, etc.) are also able to
induce this feeling. According to Keltner and Haidt, awe is more likely to occur in
response to highly unusual or even magical or impossible objects, scenes or events, or
in response to products that provide the spectator with novel ways of viewing things.
Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007) found that awe
is elicited by different kinds of experiences, the most common of which are experi-
ences of natural and artistic beauty, and of exemplary or exceptional human actions
or abilities. Keltner and Haidt believe that the study of awe has important scientific
and societal implications, since its transformative potential can reorient individuals’
lives, goals, and values. Furthermore, these authors hold that a better comprehension
of how awe is induced could be of help in definining new methods of personal change
and growth (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
The feeling of awe has often been found to be associated with sudden personal
transformation, which William Miller and C’ de Baca have defined as “quantum psy-
chological change” (Miller & C’de Baca, 2001). These authors have described two types
of quantum changes: insightful and mystical (Miller & C’De Baca, 1994; Miller & C’de
Baca, 2001). Insightful changes are described as breakthrough of internal awareness,
such as those occurring in psychotherapy. These are “a-ha” experiences in which the
person comes to a new realization, a new way of thinking or understanding. Insight-
ful transformations grow out of life experiences, in that they tend to follow personal
development. In contrast, mystical quantum changes – or epiphanies – have no con-
tinuity with “ordinary” reality and are characterized by a sense of being acting upon
by an outside force. The person knows immediately that something major has hap-
pened, and that life will never be the same again. According to Miller and C’ de Baca,
although insightful and mystical transformations are qualitatively different experi-
ences, they both usually involve a significant alteration in how the person perceives
him- or herself, others and the world.
As recent research has suggested, not only positive events but also psychologi-
cal trauma and suffering may bring about genuine transformations of the individ-
ual. In particular, Tedeschi and Calhoun (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) introduced the
concept of Posttraumatic Growth, to refer to positive changes experienced as a result
of the struggle with major life crises; such changes include the development of new
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 101
perspectives and personal growth, the perception of new opportunities or possibilities
in life, changes in relationships with others, and a richer existential and spirituallife.
6.2.1 Transformative Experiences Have an Epistemic Dimension and a Personal
As we have seen, transformative experiences differ from mere psychological change;
specifically, all transformations involve change, but not all changes result in trans-
formations. A transformative experience can completely alter one’s relationship with
the self-world: the individual builds up a new worldview, and this new perspective
supports lasting change.
In psychological terms, a worldview (also world-view) has been defined by
Koltko-Rivera (Koltko-Rivera, 2004) as “a way of describing the universe and life
within it, both in terms of what is and what ought to be” (p. 4). A worldview is at
the heart of one’s knowledge: it encompasses a collection of beliefs about the funda-
mental aspects of reality, which allow us to understand and interact with the physi-
cal and social world. According to Koltko-Rivera (2004, p. 5) a worldview includes
three different types of beliefs: existential, evaluative, and prescriptive/proscriptive.
Existential beliefs describe either entities thought to exist in the world (e.g., “There
exists a God or Goddess who cares for me personally”) or statements concerning the
nature of what can be known or done in the world (e.g., “There is such a thing as free
will”). Evaluative beliefs are judgments of human beings or actions (e.g., “Those who
fight against my nation are evil”). Finally, prescriptive/proscriptive beliefs are values,
intended as descriptions of preferred means or ends (e.g., “The right thing to do in life
is to live in the moment”). According to Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory,
a learning experience is transformative when it causes the learner to restructure his
or her perspective towards more functional frames of reference (Mezirow, 1991). As
he notes: “Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of
how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, under-
stand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation
to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and
finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings” (p. 167).
In Mezirow’s theory, a disorienting dilemma can help this process by inducing the
learners to examine, challenge and revise his assumptions and beliefs. For Mezirow,
a disorienting dilemma is ususally triggered by a life crisis or major life transition
(e.g. death, ilness, separation or divorce), but it can also result from “an eyeopen-
ing discussion, book, poem, or painting or from efforts to understand a different
culture with customs that contradict our own previously accepted presuppositions”
(p. 168). Mezirow identified three types of reﬂection that can occur when we face a
dilemma: content reﬂection, process reﬂection, and premise reﬂection. The first two
are involved when we reﬂect on the content of an actual issue (i.e., “what are the
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102 Transformative Experience Design
key issues to examine?”) or on the process by which we solved a specific problem
(i.e. “how did I get here?”). These areas of reflection result in the transformation of
meaning schemes, which is a common, everyday occurrence. In contrast, premise
reﬂection concerns the relevance of the problem itself (i.e. “why did this happen?”)
and involves a critique of the presuppositions on which our beliefs have been built.
According to Mezirow, premise reflection can bring about the most significant learn-
ing, as it results in the transformation of one’s meaning structure.
The philosopher Paul (Paul, 2014) argues that transformative experiences have an
epistemic dimension and a personal dimension. Epistemically-transformative experi-
ences are those that allow an individual to grasp new knowledge, which would be
inaccessible to the knower until he or she has such an experience. For example, if you
have never seen color, you cannot know “what it is like” to see red; similarly, if you
have never heard music, you cannot know “what is like” to hear music. However, Paul
points out that not all epistemic experiences hold the same transformative potential,
as not all of them are able to change our self-defining preferences or worldview. In
Paul’s example, tasting a durian for the first time is epistemically transformative, as
the taste experience of the durian is revealed to the individual and allows him or her
to gain new subjective knowledge. On the other hand, it is unlikely that this new taste
will radically change the individual’s perspective on life. According to Paul, there is
another type of experience that can really change who a person is; these are called
personally transformative experiences. For example, Paul notes, the experience of
having a child is not only epistemically transformative, it is also personally trans-
formative. This experience not only provides new knowledge about what is like to
have a baby but can also change a person’s values, priorities, and self-conception in
ways that are deep and unpredictable. For Paul, personally transformative experi-
ences can be of various natures, such as “(experiencing) a horriﬁc physical attack,
gaining a new sensory ability, having a traumatic accident, undergoing major surgery,
winning an Olympic gold medal, participating in a revolution, having a religious con-
version, having a child, experiencing the death of a parent, making a major scientiﬁc
discovery, or experiencing the death of a child” (p. 16). In particular, Paul notes that
“If an experience changes you enough to substantially change your point of view,
thus substantially revising your core preferences or revising how you experience
being yourself, it is a personally transformative experience” (p. 16). Thus, accord-
ing to Paul personally transformative experiences can change our worldview; that
is, they can change not only what we know but also how we experience being who
we are. In this sense, transformative experiences are potential sources of epistemic
expansion, because they teach us something that we could not have known before
having the experience, while at the same time changing us as a person. As Paul notes:
“Such experiences are very important from a personal perspective, for transformative
experiences can play a significant role in your life, involving options that, speaking
metaphorically, function as crossroads in your path towards self-realization” (p. 17).
Paul argues that transformative experiences are also philosophically important, as
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 103
they challenge our ordinary conception of major life-changing decisions as rational
decisions. Rational decision-making models assume that when we choose a course of
action, we try to maximize the expected value of our phenomenological preferences.
However, Paul contends that, since we don’t know what it will be like to have the
experience until we have it, then it follows that some life-changing decisions – like
whether or not to have a child – cannot be made rationally (Paul, 2015): “The trouble
comes from the fact that, because having one’s first child is epistemically transforma-
tive, one cannot determine the value of what it’s like to have one’s own child before
actually having her” (p. 11). Thus, in reality, the kind of epistemic discoveries related
to what it is like to be a parent (in terms of emotions, beliefs, desires, and dispositions)
are made only upon entering parenthood. Paul’s claim regarding the irreducible sub-
jective dimension of transformative experiences is analogous to Nagel’s (Nagel, 1974)
famous thought experiment regarding whether it is possible to know what it is like to
be a bat. According to Nagel, regardless of all objective scientific information that we
can obtain by investigating a bat’s brain, it is not possible to know how it feels to be a
bat, since we will never be able to take the exact perspective of a bat. In Nagel’s own
terms: “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I
am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to
the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience,
or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combi-
nation of additions, subtractions, and modifications” (p. 220).
Although Paul’s argument is philosophically controversial (Dougherty, Horow-
itz, & Sliwa, 2015), it nevertheless supports the idea that transformative experiences
have the potential to extend our (subjective) epistemic horizon, which is hedged-in
by our unactualized possible selves. Of course, one might disagree that having a
transformative experience is the only means to know how that experience feels. For
example, it could be argued that it is possible to rely on imagination and assess the
way that we would react to the transformative event. However, the bulk of empirical
evidence shows that people are not good at predicting their own future feelings, an
ability known as “affective forecasting” (for a review, see (Dunn & Laham, 2006)). For
example, young adults overestimate how happy they will feel in the event of having
a date on Valentine’s Day, and overestimate how unhappy they will feel if they do not
have a date (Hoerger & Quirk, 2010; Hoerger, Quirk, Chapman, & Duberstein, 2012).
A possible explanation that has been raised to explain this biased affective predic-
tion is that people tend to overlook coping strategies that attenuate emotional reac-
tions to events – a phenomenon known as “immune neglect” (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson,
Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998). According to Epstein’s (Epstein, 1994, 2003) Cognitive-
Experiential Self Theory, humans operate through the use of two fundamental infor-
mation-processing systems, a rational system (driven by reason) and an experiential
system (driven by emotions), which operate in an interactive and parallel fashion. The
rational system, which has a short evolutionary history, is based on logical inference
and operates in an analytically, relatively slow and affect-free fashion. Encoding of
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104 Transformative Experience Design
reality in this system involves abstract symbols, words and numbers, linked together
by logical relations. In contrast, the experiential system has a much longer evolution-
ary history and is present in both humans and non-human animals. It processes infor-
mation automatically, rapidly and holistically, creating associative connections that
are closely linked to emotions such as pleasure and pain. In the experiential system,
encoding of reality occurs in metaphors, images and narratives. Drawing on Epstein’s
theory, it has been proposed that when people engage in affective forecasting, immune
neglect emerges because the rational system fails to appreciate the important role
that the experiential system plays in shaping emotional experience (Dunn, Forrin,
& Ashton-James, 2009). Because of the fundamental difference by which these two
systems operate, as Kushlev and Dunn (Kushlev & Dunn, 2012) efficiently summarize,
“trying to use the rational system to predict the outputs of the experiential system is a
little like asking a robot to analyze a poem, and a diverse array of affective forecasting
errors arise from this fundamental mismatch” (p. 279).
Figure 6.1: A conceptual representation of the process of epistemic expansion driven by transforma-
tive experience (adapted from Koltko-Rivera, 2004)
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 105
6.2.2 Transformative Experience as Emergent Phenomenon
The review of previous research on personally transforming experiences suggests
that, in spite of commonly held assumptions, psychological change is not always the
result of a gradual and linear process that occurs under conscious control (C’De Baca
& Wilbourne, 2004; Miller & C’De Baca, 1994). Rather, under certain circumstances,
enduring transformations can be the result of epiphanies and sudden insights. But
how do these transformations occur? The theory of complex dynamical systems
(Haken, 2002, 2004; Prigogine, 1984; Scott Kelso, 1995), which has been applied
across disciplines as diverse as physics, biology, ecology, chemistry, political science ,
may offer an useful framework to address this question. From the perspective of com-
plexity theory, humans, like all living organisms, are open, self-organizing systems
that attain increasing levels of complexity and adaptation through the continuous
exchange of energy and information with the environment. Dynamic systems evolve
in complexity through the generation of emergent properties, which can be deﬁned as
properties that are possessed by a system as a whole but not by its constituent parts
(Haken, 2002, 2004; Prigogine, 1984; Scott Kelso, 1995). These emergent phenomena
are the result of feedback loop mechanisms that affect the system’s equilibrium state,
either amplifying an initial change in a system (positive feedback) or dampening an
effect (negative feedback). Perturbation studies in dynamic systems research have
revealed that an important predictor of transition is a type of discontinuity called crit-
ical fluctuations (Bak, Chen, & Creutz, 1989; Hayes, Laurenceau, Feldman, Strauss,
& Cardaciotto, 2007). When the system has a stable or equilibrium structure, the
fluctuation is usually very slight and can be offset by the negative feedback effect of
the structure. However, even a single fluctuation, by acting synergistically with other
fluctuations, may become powerful enough (i.e., a giant fluctuation) to reorganize the
whole system into a new pattern. The critical points at which this happens are called
“bifurcation points,” at which the system experiences a phase transition towards a
new structure of higher order (Tsonis, 1992). When seen through the lens of complex-
ity theory, a quantum psychological change may occur when the person perceives an
inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures following an event
that is experienced as being much larger than the self’s ordinary frame of reference
(as in Keltner and Haidt’s model of awe). During this critical fluctuation, the system
is destabilized but also open to new information and to the exploration of potentially
more adaptive associations and configurations (Hayes et al., 2007). Interestingly, psy-
chotherapists are starting to consider dynamic systems principles to conceptualize
their interventions (Hayes & Strauss, 1998; Hayes et al., 2007; Heinzel, Tominschek,
& Schiepek, 2014). According to Hayes and Yasins (Hayes & Yasinski, 2015), effective
therapy involves exposure to corrective information and new experiences that chal-
lenge patients to develop new cognitive-affective-behavioral-somatic patterns, rather
than to assimilate new information into old patterns. In the view of these authors,
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106 Transformative Experience Design
destabilization of pathological patterns can facilitate new learning, a shift in meaning
and affective response, and an integration of cognitive and affective experiences.
6.2.3 Principles of Transformative Experience Design
The theoretical framework introduced in the previous paragraphs has allowed us
to identify key features of transformative experiences. As I move forward to explore
how these concepts might be turned into design principles, it is important to stress a
central tenet of TED: transformative experiences cannot be constructed but can only be
invited. Although the term “design” is commonly used to denote a set of explicit rules
for achieving a product (in this case, a transformative experience) a key assumption
of TED is that no subjective transformation can be imposed or constructed using tech-
nology the way marble is modelled by a sculptor. Authentic transformation requires
the active involvement of the individual in the generation of new meanings as well as
the perception that the experience being lived is self-relevant. Furthermore, since any
personal transformation has an inherent subjective dimension, it is not possible to
know in advance how the experience will feel for the individual, before it is actually
lived through. Rather, TED argues that it is possible to define some specific trans-
formative affordances, which are theoretically-based design guidelines for inviting,
eliciting or facilitating a transformative experience. To illustrate the framework, I will
focus on four different but interrelated aspects of TED: (i) medium; (ii) content; (iii)
form; (iv) purpose.
220.127.116.11 The Transformative Medium
In principle, a transformative experience could be elicited by various media – includ-
ing plays, storytelling, imagery, music, films and paintings. However, I argue that a
specific technology – immersive virtual reality (VR) – holds the highest potential to
foster a transformative process, since it is able to meet most of the key conceptual
requirements of quantum psychological change. As previously argued, transforma-
tive experiences are sources of epistemic expansion, however we cannot benefit from
this epistemic expansion until these transformations have been actualized. In addi-
tion, mental simulation of our “possible selves” cannot offer much help, as the ratio-
nal system (which we use to run the simulation) is essentially different from what we
are trying to predict (the experiential outcome): that’s why simulations and actual
perceptions systematically diverge (Kushlev & Dunn, 2012). As Gilbert and Wilson
(Gilbert & Wilson, 2007) argue, “Compared to sensory perceptions, mental simula-
tions are mere cardboard cut-outs of reality” (p. 1354). What if we had a technology
that could fill this “epistemic gap”, enabling one to experience a possible self, from
a subjective perspective? Could such a technology be used as a medium to support,
foster, or invite personally-transformative experiences?
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 107
A VR system is the combination of stereoscopic displays, real-time motion-track-
ing, stereo headphones and other possible sensory replications (i.e., tactile, olfactory,
and gustatory senses), which provide the users a sense of presence – that is, the per-
ception of “being there” (Barfield & Weghorst, 1993; Riva, Waterworth, & Waterworth,
2004; Riva, Waterworth, Waterworth, & Mantovani, 2011). Thanks to these unique
characteristics, VR can be used to generate an infinite number of “possible selves”,
by providing a person a “subjective window of presence” into unactualized but pos-
sible worlds. From this perspective, virtual reality may be referred to as an epistemi-
cally transformative technology, since it allows individuals to encounter totally new
experiences from a first-person, embodied perspective. The ability of VR to allow an
individual to enact a possible self from a first-person perspective has been effectively
exploited in psychotherapy (Riva, 2005). For example, virtual reality worlds are cur-
rently used to expose phobic patients to 3D simulations of the feared object or situa-
tion, in order to help them to handle the unsettling emotional reactions (Meyerbroker
& Emmelkamp, 2010).
However, I contend that beyond clinical uses, the potential of VR for eliciting
epistemically transformative experiences is still largely unexplored. The possible uses
of VR range from the simulation of “plausible” possible worlds and possible selves
to the simulation of realities that break the laws of nature and even of logic. These
manipulations could be used as cognitive perturbations, since, as previously noted,
appraisal of uncanny events (such as seeing an object levitate for no reason), causes
a massive need for accommodation. Hence, the experience of such VR paradoxes may
offer new opportunities for epistemic expansions, providing the participant with new
potential sources of insight and inspiration. Researchers are already looking at ways
in which VR can be used to hack our ordinary perception of self and reality in order to
observe what happens to specific brain or psychological processes when a person is
exposed to alterations of the bodily self using multisensory conflicts. By virtue of this
manipulation researchers hope to cast light on the neurobiological process underly-
ing self-consciousness. However, the experimental paradigms used in these studies
may offer new, powerful tools to provide people with sources of awe and therefore
trigger the active process of assimilation/accommodation. For the present discus-
sion, I will consider three kinds of transformative potentials that are unique to VR: (i)
manipulating bodily self-consciousness; (ii) embodying another person’s subjective
experience; and (iii) altering the laws of logic and nature.
18.104.22.168.1 I Am a Different Me: Altering Bodily Self-Consciousness
VR is able to generate an artificial sense of embodiment, or the subjective experience
of using and having a body (Blanke & Metzinger, 2009) by acting on three multisen-
sory brain processes: the sense of self-location (the feeling of being an entity localized
at a position in space and perceiving the world from this position and perspective),
the sense of agency (the sense that I am causing the action) and the sense of body
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108 Transformative Experience Design
ownership (the sense of one’s self-attribution of a body, or self-identification) (Kilteni,
Groten, & Slater, 2012).
Thanks to this feature, by using VR it is possible to alter body self-consciousness
to give people the illusion that they have a different body. This type of manipulation
uses video, virtual reality and/or robotic devices to induce changes in self-location,
self-identification and first-person perspective in healthy subjects. By altering the
neurophysiological basis of self experiences (self as an object), VR allows for experi-
menting with a different “ontological self” (self as a subject). For example, Lenggen-
hager et al. (Lenggenhager, Tadi, Metzinger, & Blanke, 2007) applied VR to induce an
out-of-body experience by using conflicting visual-somatosensory input to disrupt the
spatial unity between the self and the body. Riva (in this volume) has three possible
strategies that can be used to alter bodily self-consciousness using virtual reality and
brain-based technologies: (i) mindful embodiment, which consists in the modification
of the bodily experience by facilitating the availability of its content in the working
memory; augmented embodiment, which is based on the enhancement of bodily self-
consciousness by altering/extending its boundaries; and (iii) synthetic embodiment,
which aims at replacing bodily with synthetic self-consciousness (incarnation). Inter-
estingly, VR is a technology that allows for not only simulating a plausible possible
self, but even simulating the self-experience of another living organism, thus provid-
ing access to what Nagel considered impossible to access – that is, “what is like to
be a bat”. This potential of VR was already recognized by Charles Tart, one of the
leading researchers in the field of altered states of consciousness and transpersonal
psychology, at the very beginning of VR technology. In a 1990 article, Tart wrote (Tart,
1990): “Suppose everything that has been learned to date about ground squirrels,
rattlesnakes, their interactions, and their environment could be put into a simulation
world, a computer-generated virtual reality. To a much greater extent than is now pos-
sible, you (and your colleagues) could see and hear the world from the point of view of
a ground squirrel, walk through the tunnels a ground squirrel lives in, know what it is
perceptually like to be in a world where the grass is as tall as you, and what it is like
when a rattlesnake comes slithering down your tunnel! What kind of insights would
that give you into what it is like to live in that kind of world?” (p. 226).
22.214.171.124.2 I Am Another You: Embodying The Other
In the movie Being John Malkovich the main character Craig, a failed puppeteer, enters
a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. After this discovery, Craig goes into
business with a coworker with whom he is secretly in love, selling fifteen-minute
“rides” in Malkovich’s head. Suppose that you were able to enter someone’s else body
in this way: how would this experience change you? A potential of immersive VR as
a transformative tool lies in its capability to render an experience from the perspec-
tive of another individual, by seeing what another saw, hearing what another heard,
touching what another touched, saying what another said, moving as another moved,
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 109
and – through narrative and drama – feeling the emotions another felt (Raij, Kotranza,
Lind, Pugh, & Lok, 2009). Thanks to the ability of VR of enabling social-perspective
taking, different experiments have been carried out to test the potential of this tech-
nology for enhancing empathy, prosocial behavior and moral development. In one
such study, Yee and Bailenson (Yee & Bailenson, 2007) observed that participants
spending several minutes in a virtual world embodying a tall virtual self-represen-
tation were found to be prone to choose more aggressive strategies in a negotiation
task compared to participants who were given short avatars. These authors called
this phenomenon the “Proteus Effect”, a reference to the Greek sea-god Proteus, who
was noted for being capable of assuming many different forms. More recently, Ahn,
Tran Le and Bailenson (Ahn, Le, & Bailenson, 2013) carried out three experiments to
explore whether embodied experiences via VR would elicit greater self-other merging,
favorable attitudes, and helping efforts toward persons with a visual disability (color-
blindness) compared to imagination alone. Findings showed that participants in the
embodied experience condition experienced greater self-other merging compared to
those in the imagination condition, and this effect generalized to the physical world,
leading participants to voluntarily spend twice as much effort to help persons with
colorblindness compared to participants who had only imagined being colorblind.
Peck et al. (2013) demonstrated that embodiment of light-skinned participants in
a dark-skinned virtual body significantly reduced implicit racial bias against dark-
skinned people, in contrast to embodiment in light-skinned, purple-skinned or no
It should be noted that, although VR is one of the most advanced technologies
to embody another person’s visual perspective, this experience could be further
enhanced by integrating VR with other kinds of first-person simulation technologies.
For example, age simulation suits have been designed to enable younger persons
to experience common age-related limitations such as sensory impairment, joint
stiffness or loss of strength. Schmidt and Jekel (Schmidt & Jekel, 2013) carried out
experimental study that evaluated the potential of a realistic simulation of physical
decline to stimulate empathy for older people in society. The simulated impairments
were rated as realistic, and a majority of participants reported a higher mental strain
during the tasks. After the session, understanding for typical everyday problems of
older people increased. In part, the simulation evoked fear and negative attitudes
towards aging. I argue that the potential of these age simulators could be even further
enhanced having participants wear these suits in immersive VR scenarios, in which
the older person might interact in realistic ageing-related contexts and situations.
126.96.36.199.3 I Am in a Paradoxical Reality: Altering the Laws of Logic
A further opportunity offered by VR as a transformative medium is the possibility
of simulating impossibile worlds – that is, worlds that do not conform to the funda-
mental laws of logic and nature (Orbons & Ruttkay, 2008). The simulated violation
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110 Transformative Experience Design
of real-world constraints has been used to explore cognitive and metacognitive pro-
cesses, yet this impossible-world paradigm could be also used to trigger the active
process of assimilation/accommodation, which fosters epistemic expansion. More-
over, the manipulation of fundamental physical parameters, such as space and time,
could be used to help people to grasp complex metaphysical questions in order to
stimulate reflection on philosophical and metaphysical issues that are critical to
understanding the self-world relationship. As Tart suggested, “A virtual reality could
readily be programmed to accentuate change in virtual objects, virtual people and
virtual events. Would the experience of such a world, even though artiﬁcial, sensitize
a person so that they could learn the lesson of recognizing change and becoming
less attached to the illusion of permanence more readily in subsequent meditation
practice?” (p. 229).
Suzuki et al. (Suzuki, Wakisaka, & Fujii, 2012) developed a novel experimental
platform, referred to as a “substitutional reality” (SR) system, for studying the con-
viction of the perception of live reality and related metacognitive functions. The SR
system was designed to allow for manipulating participants’ perception of reality
by allowing participants to experience live scenes (in which they were physically
present) and recorded scenes (which were recorded and edited in advance) in an alter-
nating manner. Specifically, the authors’ goal was to examine whether participants
were able to identify a reality gap. Findings showed that most of the participants were
induced to believe that they had experienced live scenes when recorded scenes were
presented. However, according to Suzuki et al., the SR system offers several other
ways to manipulate participants’ reality. Authors suggest that for example, the SR can
be used to cause participants to experience inconsistent or contradictory episodes,
such as encountering themselves, or to experience déjà vu-like situations (e.g., rep-
etitions of same event such as conversations or one-time-only events, such as break-
ing a unique piece of art). Furthermore, SR allows for the implementation of a visual
experience of worlds with different natural laws (e.g., weaker gravity or faster time).
Time alterations and time paradoxes (i.e., the possibility of changing history) rep-
resent another kind of impossible manipulation of physical reality that might be fea-
sible in virtual reality. For example, Friedman et al. (Friedman et al., 2014) described
a method based on immersive virtual reality for generating an illusion of having trav-
eled backward through time to relive a sequence of events in which the individual can
intervene and change history. The authors consider this question: what if someone
could travel back through time to experience a sequence of events and be able to
intervene in order to change history? To answer this question, Friedman et al. simu-
lated a sequence of events with a tragic outcome (deaths of strangers) in which the
participant can virtually travel back to the past and undo actions that originally led to
the unfortunate outcome. The participant is caught in a moral dilemma: if the subject
does nothing, then five people will die for certain; if he acts then five people might be
saved but another would die. Since the participant operates in a synthetic reality that
does not obey the laws of physics (or logic), he is able to affect past events (therefore
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 111
changing history), but in doing so he intervenes as a “ghost” that cannot be perceived
by his past Doppelgänger. One of the goals of the experiment was to examine the
extent to which the experience of illusory time travel might influence attitudes toward
morality, moral dilemmas and “bad decisions” in personal history. The epistemic
value of the experience, if successful, is that the subject would implicitly learn that
the past is mutable. In particular, the authors speculated that the illusion of traveling
in time might influence present-day attitudes – in particular possibly lessening nega-
tive feelings associated with past decisions and giving a different perspective on past
actions, including those associated with the experienced scenario. Findings showed
that the virtual experience of time travel produced an increase in guilt feelings about
the events that had occurred and an increase in support of utilitarian behavior as
the solution to the moral dilemma. The experience of time travel also produced an
increase in implicit morality as judged by an implicit association test. Interestingly
for the present discussion, the time travel illusion was associated with a reduction of
regret associated with bad decisions in the participants’ own lives. The authors also
argue that this kind of epistemic expansion (the illusion that the past can be changed)
might have important consequences for present-day attitudes and beliefs, including
implications for self-improvement and psychotherapy; for example, giving people an
implicit sense that the past is mutable may be useful in releasing the grip of past trau-
matic memories in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
188.8.131.52 Transformative Content
Transformative content refers to the content and structure of the designed experience.
To understand the nature of transformative content, it is important to emphasize that
from the perspective of complexity theory, a transformative experience is conceptual-
ized as a “perturbation experiment”, which attempts to facilitate a restructuration of
meaning and beliefs by exposing the participant to experiences that induce destabili-
zation within stable boundary conditions. As I will argue, this goal can be achieved by
presenting the participant with high emotional and cognitive challenges, which may
lead the individual to enter a mindset that is more flexible and open to the exploration
of new epistemic configurations.
In the TED framework, such transformative content is delivered through a set of
experiential affordances, which are stimuli designed to elicit emotional and cognitive
involvement in the designed experience. Here, I will introduce two types of experien-
tial affordances: (i) emotional affordances; (ii) epistemic affordances.
184.108.40.206.1 Emotional Affordances
Emotional affordances are perceptual cues or stimuli that are aimed to elicit a deep
emotional involvement in the user, i.e. by evoking feelings of interest, inspiration,
curiosity, wonder and awe. Previous research has shown that emotions of awe can be
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112 Transformative Experience Design
elicited by presenting participants with multimedia stimuli (e.g. images) which depict
vast, mentally overwhelming, and realistic scenarios (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012).
To further elucidate the concept of emotional affordance, consider a recent study by
Gallagher et al. (Gallagher, Reinerman, Sollins, & Janz, 2014), who used mixed-real-
ity simulations in an attempt to elicit the experiences of awe and wonder reported
by astronauts in their journals during space flight and in interviews after returning
to the earth. Based on these reports, the authors created a virtual simulation (the
“Virtual Space Lab”) resembling an International Space Station workstation, which
was designed to expose subjects to simulated stimuli of the earth and deep space
(including physical structure plus simulated visuals). During and after exposure,
researchers collected and integrated first-person subjective information (i.e. psycho-
logical testing, textual analysis, and phenomenological interviews) with third-person
objective measures (i.e. physiological variables), following the “neurophenomenol-
ogy method” (Gallagher & Brøsted Sørensen, 2006; Varela, 1996). Findings indi-
cated that, despite some limitations, the Virtual Space Lab was able to induce awe
experiences similar to those reported in the astronauts’ reports. Thus, as noted by
the authors, findings show promise for using a simulative technology in a laboratory
when eliciting and assessing deeply involving experiences such as awe and wonder,
otherwise very difficult to investigate (because unfeasible or too expensive) in real-
220.127.116.11.2 Epistemic Affordances
In TED, emotional affordances have the goal of providing novel and awe-eliciting
information, which can trigger the complementary processes of assimilation and
accommodation, and by the virtue of the complex interplay of these processes, drive
the system to a new order of complexity. However, in order to provide the participant
with the opportunity to integrate new knowledge structures, it is necessary to present
the participant with epistemic affordances, which are cues/information/narratives
designed to trigger reflection and elicit insight. Epistemic affordances might be either
represented by explicit dilemmatic situations – e.g., a provocative or paradoxical
question, like a Zen kōan – but they could also be conveyed through implicit or evoca-
tive contents, that is, symbolic-metaphoric situations (i.e. one bright and one dark
path leading from a crossroads). For example, going back to the Virtual Space Lab’
study, Gallagher and his team demonstrated the feasibility of inducing awe within
a simulated environment, which individuals previously had only in extraterrestrial
space. In TED terms, this may be regarded as an instance of emotional affordance.
Now assume that a designer would like to add to the Virtual Space Lab experience an
epistemic affordance. To do that, the designer should create a dilemmatic situation
to allow the participant not just to experience the same feeling of awe of an astro-
naut, but also to an opportunity to develop new insight. For example, such epistemic
affordance could be resembled by the “floating dilemma” faced by Gravity’s main
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 113
character Stone (played by Sandra Bullock), which represents a metaphor for a life
that’s in permanent suspension. From this perspective, an epistemic affordance could
be also the simulated situation itself, to the extent it is able to provide a (virtual) space
for self-reflection and self-experimentation.
18.104.22.168 The Transformative Form
The form dimension of the TED framework is different from the transformative
content, in that it is less concerned with the subject of the experience that is repre-
sented, and more concerned with the style through which the transformative content
is conveyed/delivered. Thus far, I have identified two components of form: (i) cin-
ematic codes; (ii) narratives.
22.214.171.124.1 Cinematic Codes
In cinema, it is possible to enhance the emotional and cognitive involvement of the
spectator in the storyline using audiovisual effects, such as lighting, camera angles,
and music. For example, it is well known that the inclusion of a music “soundtrack”
plays a key role in heightening not only the dramatic effects but also the faces, voices
and the personalities of the players. As noted by Fischoff (Fischoff, 2005), “Music
adds something we might call heightened realism or supra-reality. It is a form of
theatrical, filmic reality, different from our normal reality.” (p. 3). Thus, a key chal-
lenge related to the form dimension of TED is to examine the possibility of adapting/
reinventing the cinematic codes with the specific objective of inducing more compel-
ling VR-based transformative experiences. The potential of translating the cinematic
audiovisual language to the context of interactive media has already been extensively
explored in the video game domain (Girina, 2013). This attempt has led to the devel-
opment of specific games, such as adventure and role-playing games, which make
massive use of the expressive potential of cinematic techniques.
In addition to the possibility of taking advantage of cinematic audiovisual codes, a
further component of the form dimension is the creation of a dramatic and engaging
narrative or story. In his lecture “Formal Design Tools” at the 2000 Game Develop-
ers’ Conference, Marc LeBlanc introduced a distinction between embedded and emer-
gent narrative (LeBlanc, 2000). Embedded narrative is the story implemented by the
game designer; it includes a set of fixed narrative units (i.e. texts or non-interactive
cut scenes) that exist prior to the player’s interaction with the game and are used to
provide the player with a fictional background, motivation for actions in the game
and development of the story arc. In contrast, emergent narrative is the story that
unfolds in the process of playing – that is, the storytelling generated by player actions
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114 Transformative Experience Design
within the rule structure governing interaction with the game system. In TED, both
embedded and emergent narratives may play a key role in facilitating a transformative
experience. Embedded narrative can be used to provide a context for enhancing the
participant’s sense of presence in the simulated environment. As previous research
has shown, a meaningful narrative context can have a significant influence on the
user’s sense of presence, providing a more compelling experience compared to non-
contextualized virtual environments (Gorini, Capideville, De Leo, Mantovani, & Riva,
2011). Emergent narrative, on the other hand, can be employed to influence the way
the transformative content/story is created, making the story experience potentially
more engaging (i.e., both attentionally and emotionally involving) for the participant.
Further, since emergent narratives allow the participant to interactively create the
narrative of the experience, they generate feedback loop mechanisms, which in turn
can trigger the complex self-organization dynamics that facilitate transformations.
An example of how cinematic codes and emergent narratives have been used in
combination with immersive virtual reality to support positive psychological change
is provided by EMMA’s World (Banos, Botella, Quero, Garcia-Palacios, & Alcaniz,
2011), a therapeutical virtual world designed to assist patients in confronting situ-
ations in which they have suffered or are suffering a stressful experience. EMMA’s
World includes ﬁve different evocative scenarios or “landscapes”: a desert, an island,
a threatening forest, a snow-covered town and a meadow. These virtual worlds have
been designed to reﬂect/induce different emotions (e.g., relaxation, elation, sadness).
However, the type of scenario that is selected is not pre-defined according to a fixed
narrative; rather, it depends on the context of the therapeutic session and can be
chosen by the therapist in real time. The goal of this strategy is to reﬂect and enhance
the emotion that the user is experiencing or to induce certain emotions. The control
tools of EMMA’s World provide also the possibility to modify the scenarios and gradu-
ate their intensity in order to reﬂect the changes in the participants’ mood states.
Another important component of EMMA’s World is the Book of Life, a virtual book
in which patients can reﬂect upon feelings and experiences. The goal of the Book of
Life is to represent the most important moments, people and situations in the person’s
life (related to the traumatic or negative experience). Anything that is meaningful for
the patient can be incorporated into the system: photos, drawings, phrases, videos.
This last feature of EMMA’s World allows it to exemplify a further design principle
of TED: personalization. This concerns the possibility of including personal details
of the participant in the immersive experience, with particular reference to autobio-
graphically-relevant elements (e.g., videos, photos, music, song lyrics) that have an
important personal meaning and therefore are able to elicit emotions (e.g., nostalgia)
related to the intimate sphere of the participant.
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Transformation is Different From Gradual Change 115
126.96.36.199 The Transformative Purpose
The central tenet of TED is that it is possible to design technologically-mediated trans-
formative experiences that support epistemic expansions and personal development.
However, since the outcome of a personally transformative experience is inherently
subjective and therefore not predictable, the idea of transformative design might seem
contradictory in itself. Nevertheless, there is another, more open-ended way in which
one might define the purpose of a (designed) transformative experience, which places
more focus on the transformative process than on the transformative outcome: that
is, considering an interactive experience as a space for transformative possibilities.
188.8.131.52.1 Transformation as Liminality
Winnicot (Winnicott, 1971) described a “potential space” as a metaphorical space that
is intermediate between fantasy and reality, an area of experiencing which opens up
new possibilities for imagination, symbolization and creativity. According to Win-
nicot, potential space is inhabited by play, which has a central importance in devel-
opmental processes. Winnicot believed that engaging in play is important not only
during childhood, but also during adulthood: “It is in playing and only in playing
that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personal-
ity, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (p. 54). A
closely related concept is “liminality”, intended as a space of transformation wherein
the human being is between past and future identities. The notion of liminality (from
the latin term limen: threshold, boundary) was first introduced by the ethnologist
Arnold van Gennep (Van Gennep, 1908/1960) to describe the initiation rites of young
members of a tribe, which fall into three structural phases: separation, transition,
and incorporation. Van Gennep defined the middle stage in a rite of passage (transi-
tion) as a “liminal period”. Elaborating on van Gennep’s work, anthropologist Victor
Turner (V. Turner, 1974) argued that, in postindustrial societies, traditional rites of
passage had lost much of their importance and have been progressively replaced by
“liminoid” spaces. There are defined by Turner as “out-of-the-ordinary” experiences
set aside from productive labor, which are found in leisure, arts, and sports (e.g.,
extreme sports). These liminoid spaces have similar functions and characteristics to
as liminal spaces, disorienting the individual from everyday routines and habits and
situating him in unfamiliar circumstances that deconstruct the “meaningfulness of
ordinary life” (V. Turner, 1985).
The metaphors of potential space and liminality/liminoid space provide a plat-
form for further elaborating the purpose of transformative design as the realization
of interactive systems that allow participants to experience generative moments of
change, which situate them in creative learning spaces where they can challenge
taken-for-granted ways of knowing and being. From this perspective, interactive
transformative experiences may function both as potential spaces and liminal spaces,
offering participants novel opportunities for promoting creativity and personal
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116 Transformative Experience Design
growth. However, as open-ended “experiments of the self”, such interactive, trans-
formative experience may also situate the participants in situations of discomfort,
disorientation and puzzlement, which are also turning points out of which new pos-
184.108.40.206.2 The Journey Matters, Not the Destination
To reach this goal, TED can take advantage of the ability to integrate the language of
arts. Indeed, art provides a vocabulary that is rich, multisensory, and at the same time
able to elicit experiences of dislocation, evocativeness, ambiguity, and openness that
can be effectively combined to generate powerful liminal spaces. As noted by Prem-
inger (Preminger, 2012), art can contribute in several ways to the design of transfor-
mative experiences. First of all, the immersive and holistic nature of the experience of
art is supportive of cognitive and emotional involvement, which in turn can enhance
learning. Second, art can be a vehicle for more efficient access to and modification
of brain representations. Third, the evocative nature of some artworks requires the
experiencer to use internally generated cognitive processes (i.e. imagery, introspec-
tion, self-representation, autobiographic and prospective memory, and volition),
which allows for enhanced immersion and identification. In addition to these char-
acteristics, which are common to art domains where the induced experience involves
mainly perceptual and cognitive processes, interactive arts (including games) can
also involve motor functions and behavioral control in dynamically changing envi-
ronments, which can further enhance the transformative potential of the designed
An interesting example of how arts can be combined with interactive design to
create emotionally-rich, memorable and transformative experiences is provided by
the games developed by computer scientist Jenova Chen. Chen believes that for video
games to become a mature medium like film, it is important to create contents that are
able to induce different emotional responses in the player than only excitement or fear
(Chen, 2009). This design philosophy is best exemplified in the critically-acclaimed
video game Journey (Chen, 2012), a mysterious desert adventure in which the player
takes the role of a red-robed figure in a desert populated by supernatural ruins. On
the far horizon is a big mountain with a light beam shooting straight up into the sky,
which becomes the natural destination of the adventurer. While walking towards the
mountain, the avatar can encounter other players, one at a time, if they are online;
they cannot speak but can help each other in their journey if they wish. The goal of
the game is to take the player on an emotional and artistic journey that evokes feel-
ings of spirituality and a sense of smallness, wonder and awe, as well as to foster an
emotional connection with the anonymous players encountered along the way (Pan-
tazis, 2010). To achieve this, the game uses a very sophisticated visual aesthetics, in
combination with music that dynamically responds to the player’s actions, building
a single theme to represent the game’s emotional arc throughout the story. A further
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Conclusion: the Hallmarks of Transformative Experience Design 117
relevant feature of Journey for the TED framework is that, unlike conventional games,
its goal is not clearly set, as it places greater emphasis on enjoying the experience as
it unfolds during play.
6.3 Conclusion: the Hallmarks of Transformative Experience Design
This chapter aimed at providing a first framework for Transformative Experience
Design, which refers to the use of interactive systems to support long-lasting changes
in the self-world. In particular, the goal of this chapter was two-fold: (i) to provide
background knowledge on the concepts of transformative experience, as well as its
implications for individual growth and psychological wellbeing; and (ii) to translate
such knowledge into a tentative set of design principles for developing transformative
applications of technology.
The central assumption of TED is that the next generation of interactive systems
and brain-based technologies will offer the unprecedented opportunity to develop
Figure 6.2: A possible schematization of the transformative process. The exposure to novel
information (i.e. awe-inducing stimuli) triggers the process of assimilation. If integration fails, the
person experiences a critical fluctuation that can either lead to rejection of novelty or to an attempt
to accommodate existing schema, eventually generating new knowledge structures and therefore
producing an epistemic expansion
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118 Transformative Experience Design
synthetic, controlled transformative experiences to foster epistemic expansion and
personal development. For the first time in its history, the human being has the pos-
sibility of developing technologies that allow for experimenting the “Other-than-Self”
and, by doing so, exploring new means of epistemic expansion. This Other-than-Self
encompasses a broad spectrum of transformative possibilities, which include “what
it is like” to be another self, another life form, or a possible future or past self. These
designed experiences can be used to facilitate self-knowledge and self-understand-
ing, foster creative expression, develop new skills, and recognize and learn the value
Although the present discussion is largely exploratory and speculative, I believe
this initial analysis of TED has some significant potential. First, the analysis of trans-
formative experience can inspire new applications of VR that go beyond gaming and
therapy to address issues related to personal development and self-actualization.
Furthermore, the analysis of the characteristics of transformative experience has
intrinsic scientific value, since it can promote a deeper understanding of this complex
psychological phenomenon at multiple levels of analysis – neuropsychological, phe-
nomenological, and technological. Finally, the further development of TED may also
contribute to redefinining our conceptualization of information technologies, from
tools of mass consumption to potential means to satisfy the highest psychological
needs for growth and fulfillment.
However, a caveat is necessary before this research moves forward. I believe
that the study of how to use technology to support positive transformations of the
self should not be considered a deterministic, technologically-centered perspective
on human personal development. The final aim of transformative design, as I see it,
should not be confused with the idea of “engineering self-realization”. Rather, I hold
that the objective of this endeavour should be to explore new possible technological
means of supporting human beings’ natural tendency towards self-actualization and
self-transcendence. As Haney (Haney, 2006) beautifully puts it: “each person must
choose for him or herself between the technological extension of physical experience
through mind, body and world on the one hand, and the natural powers of human
consciousness on the other as a means to realize their ultimate vision” (ix, Preface).
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