John A. Waterworth and  Eva L. Waterworth

Tools for Creativity
The Interactive Institute
SE-907 19 Umea



The Meaning of Presence


Terminological and other confusions about what comprises presence, and what does not, have impeded progress in the field. In this speculative short paper we suggest that presence has a biological purpose and that a consideration of this purpose may provide a way forward.  We see presence as the feeling a conscious organism experiences when immersed in a concrete external world. This feeling must be distinguishable from engagement in internally constructed mental worlds, in organisms equipped to construct such inner realities. Presence depends on the form of the media, because form determines whether a world must be constructed internally or can be said to exist outside the perceiver.  From this claim, we speculate on possible future ways of applying presence in psychotherapy and the arts. In viewing presence this way we are adopting an experiential realist position, one that sees meaning as residing ultimately in concrete experiences of external worlds, real or virtual – in other words, in presence.  


Presence, internal worlds, perception, emotion, meaning, psychotherapy, the arts.      

1 Introduction

A recent article by Slater (2003) points to the current confusion about what is signified by the word “presence”. Slater suggests that presence is about form, not content. It should not be confused with degree of interest in, nor emotional engagement with, the contents of an environment. Slater also suggests that presence is not the same as immersion. We agree with Slater that it is important to distinguish presence from emotional engagement, otherwise the concept of presence will lose any distinctive meaning. But we find the justification for this stance to be more than terminological. We claim that feeling presence has a biological purpose. It is only possible to motivate the need for terminological clarity, and to apply the clarified concept to a variety of practical, therapeutic and entertainment settings, if we understand this purpose, which is the meaning of presence.

We begin with a consideration of presence as media form, drawing on our earlier work claiming that level of experienced presence is an inverse function of the degree of abstraction of the media. This allows a distinction to be made between presence and the suspension of disbelief with which it is often confused. We move on in later sections to expand on our view of the biological purpose of presence, and from there to its therapeutic and other usefulness as the “royal road” to emotional change.

2 Presence and Media Form

We have been suggesting that presence is a function of form for several years now (e.g. Waterworth, 1996; Waterworth and Waterworth, 2000a,b; 2001). Our argument is that people routinely deal with two kinds of information, the concrete and the abstract. Concrete information is of a form that can be dealt with directly via the perceptual-motor systems; it includes information coming from the world around us, and it gives rise to the sense of presence. The information is realised as the world or, through technology, as a world that exists outside our minds. Abstract information must be realised mentally. An imagined world is created from abstract information, and such imagined worlds may be very vivid and emotionally engaging, but they only exist mentally. Waterworth et al. (2001) presented evidence that different versions of a media production elicited different levels of presence, depending on the degree of abstraction of the information presentation. Specifically, the more concrete the presentation, the higher the level of experienced presence.

We have called this engagement with an internally-realised world “absence”. For example, Waterworth and Waterworth (2000a) claim that “Presence arises when we mostly attend to the currently present environment within and around the body. The capacity we have for such attention depends on the amount of conceptual processing the situation demands. As we process more in an abstract way, we can consciously sample fewer concrete aspects of the present situation, and so our sense of presence diminishes; we become absent”.

We need to understand the presence-absence distinction if we are to understand presence, and perhaps also consciousness in general. As Max Velmans puts it: “What we normally call the ‘physical world’ just is what we experience. There is no additional experience of the world ‘in the mind or brain’”, whereas, “We also have ‘inner’ experiences such as verbal thoughts, images, feelings of knowing, experienced desires, and so on.” and “In so far as these processes are experienced, they are reflexively experienced to be roughly where they are (in the head or brain)” (Velmans, 2000, p. 110).

The distinction between internally- and externally-generated worlds (and the importance of form) is clear if we consider the difference between reading a gripping novel and acting in a convincing virtual reality. The world of the novel is depicted in an abstract form – the symbols of textual language. We must do conceptual work to realise it mentally. A VR is depicted in a concrete form, and can be experienced in the ideal case without extra work – by the same perceptual processes by which we interact with the real world. The virtual world is the same for everyone who acts in it, just as the real world is (though, of course, our experiences and reactions differ). But the world I realise in my head when I read a novel is not the same as the one you realise, though it will have similarities. Put even more simply, we can share external worlds, but we cannot share imagined worlds. Media form determines the extent to which information is realised externally or internally. Presence is what it feels like to be conscious and embodied in an external world.

We have previously suggested that degree of presence versus absence is orthogonal to both the real-virtual distinction, and the level of attentional arousal of the experiencer (Waterworth and Waterworth, 2001). By this view, we can be highly present in a virtual world, highly absent in the real world and vice versa. Level of attention can be high when we feel present, but also when we feel absent, and presence can be high even when attention level is low. Since emotional content is one of the factors that can be expected to affect attention level, Slater’s (2003) statement that “Presence is orthogonal to emotional content” is compatible with our earlier position, insofar as emotional content determines level of attention.

However, it is not clear that presence and emotion can be treated as independent. Obviously, when the content of an environment is engaging people will tend to report higher levels of presence. More interestingly, it may be that presence – as a reaction to being immersed in a world – is intrinsically tied to emotional engagement. It may be that we cannot act in the external world, nor make decisions in the internal world of the mind, without emotion (Damasio, 1994; 1999). If this is true, to feel present is to have emotions. But this is also true of absence! To make sense of this, and clarify why presence cannot be the same as emotional engagement, it is necessary to consider what biological purpose presence might have.

3 The Biological Purpose of Presence

We claim that presence is a defining feature of core consciousness (see Damasio, 1999). It is a fundamentally biological phenomenon, in fact, a feeling. Presence is the feeling of being bodily in an externally-existing world. It was designed by evolution to ensure that organisms attend to the things in their here and now that might affect their survival. This is why it is so easily confused with emotionality or level of interest. For organisms in a natural environment, it is vital to pay attention and respond rapidly to present threats and opportunities. Our emotional life is built on this evolutionary substrate. But as extended consciousness evolved, imagined situations became increasingly important to survival and biological success. Because of this, these imagined situations evoke the same mechanisms of interest and emotion, but they do not elicit presence.

When we imagine, think, plan and generally deal with information that does not constitute our experience of things and events in the currently present external situation we are exercising extended consciousness. And it is extended consciousness that allows us to create an internal world in which we may suspend disbelief. Extended consciousness relies on working memory (Damasio, 1999), which can be seen as the “active scratchpad” of mental life (Baars, 1988; Baddeley, 1986, 1992; Hitch and Baddeley, 1976). It is in working memory that the internal world we are currently experiencing is largely created. Its function is to allow us to consider possibilities not present in the current external situation. In contrast, core consciousness is directed exclusively to the here and now – the present – and is what we share with all conscious animals. This reinforces the idea that presence is a common biological state, as well as the seemingly more fanciful suggestion that virtual worlds could engage animals as well as people (Waterworth, 1996).

As Damasio puts it (1999, page 195), “Extended consciousness goes beyond the here and now of core consciousness, both backward and forward”. Extended consciousness gives us obvious advantages over organisms without it, such as the ability to plan and generally enact in the imagination possible scenarios in the future, as well as to increase the sophistication of learning from the past. Language depends on it, because we must retain linear sequences of symbols in working memory if we are to understand utterances, whether spoken or written. It is presumably because of these advantages that consciousness has become extended in this way through the process of evolution (Pinker, 1998).

The advantages of extended consciousness depend on the fact that we can distinguish between the experience of the external word and the experience of imagined internal worlds; in other words, between presence and what we call absence. Viable organisms must be able to tell the difference between an imagined future situation and the actual, present, external situation. Confusions of the two indicate serious psychological problems, problems which, until recent times, would have prevented survival and the passing on of this condition. Simply put, if we react as if the external world is only imaginary we will not survive long (think of this the next time you cross a busy street). And if we think that what we are merely imagining is actually happening, we may omit to carry out basic activities on which our survival depends. We are suggesting that presence is the feeling that evolution has given us to make this vital distinction.

It should be clear now why we consider the suspended disbelief we have, for example, when reading a gripping novel, and the sense of presence we experience in a convincing VR, to be different things, although both can lead to emotional engagement. Confusing these two has led to the lack of terminological clarity, which, as Slater (2003) rightly emphasises, has contributed to a certain lack of recent progress in our understanding of presence. As we put it in an earlier paper (Waterworth and Waterworth, 2001) “The root of the problem with many existing models of presence is perhaps confusion between presence and suspension of disbelief”. Our view is that suspension of disbelief does not result in “the illusion of nonmediation” that, as Lombard and Ditton (1997) aptly suggest, characterises presence. Rather, suspension of disbelief results in imagined presence, which can be highly engaging.

Thanks to the evolutionary nature of the development of the mind, current events from the surrounding external environment are only confused with mentally constructed events in exceptional cases of psychological disturbance.  This is true no matter how vivid or emotionally engaging the mentally created world may be. Suspension of disbelief (in a mentally constructed world) is only confused with presence (in an externally surrounding world) when the organism’s sensory systems are seriously impaired or artificially “turned off” (see Humphrey, 1992; Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998, Chapter 5).  What we are experiencing when we interpret the imagined as the real is hallucination, and is usually indicative of a serious problem for the organism concerned. It is from the experienced distinction between imagined and real presence that the therapeutic potential of presence derives.

4 Speculations on the Therapeutic Use of Presence

We have suggested that presence is how it feels to be engaged with an external world, and that this can be distinguished from how it feels to be engaged with an internal world. Both kinds of world, the external one eliciting presence and the internal one producing what we call absence, evoke emotion. We feel embarrassment when we are publicly humiliated, and we feel it again when we imagine ourselves being so treated. Normally, and naturally, the external world – and presence – is given priority. When driving, we must act to avoid the traffic hazard before we continue our absent-minded daydreaming about the weekend – even if what we were imagining was much more exciting than the present situation. It is because of the priority given to presence that VR has such potential as a powerful psychotherapeutic tool.

The aim of much psychotherapy is to change the linking between life events and emotional responses to those events. We are not psychotherapists and we will not attempt here to review the many, often successful, attempts to apply VR to a variety of psychological maladjustments (see, for example, Riva et al., 1999). However, we do suggest that presence may provide a “royal road” to the evocation of emotion and change, just because it has a psychological precedence based on its biological and evolutionary importance. As Damasio (1999) suggests on the basis of neurological findings, “the ‘body-loop’ mechanism of emotion and feeling is of greater importance for real experience of feelings than the ‘as if body-loop’ mechanism” (page 294).

As we understand it, most psychotherapies take the internal world (or ‘as if body-loop’) route to emotion. Ideation of a situation might be used to provoke an emotional response that can then be discussed and addressed, perhaps in conjunction with relaxation techniques. VR is most often seen as an adjunct to ideation, a way to strengthen this approach to change. But the basic approach remains the same and rests on the idea that meaning resides primarily in internal worlds, and that change should arise first and foremost in those internal worlds. The result is that psychotherapy, although successfully exploiting VR technologies, does so within a framework that perhaps fails to capitalise on the organismic priority of presence.

The conventional framework could be described as “imagining evokes emotions and the meaning of the associated feelings can be changed through reflection and relaxation”. We would suggest as an alternative that “experience evokes emotions that result in meaningful new feelings which can be reflected upon”. The conventional framework is limited by the secondary nature of the feelings evoked, based on the internal world route. We speculate that the alternative approach may be more effective, because by using VR it can take the external world route. We suggest that meaning derives ultimately from bodily experiences of being in an external world. It seems reasonable to predict that the meanings of feelings can be more effectively changed when they are addressed at source.

 Our view of meaning rests on recent trends in philosophy, such as Lakoff and Johnson’s “experiential realism” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; 1999), and we have applied this approach successfully to the design of navigable information landscapes (Waterworth, 1999: Waterworth et al., 2003). By this view, meaning derives ultimately from embodied experience, in core consciousness; in other words, from presence. Presence comes first, both in evolutionary terms and in epistemological terms. Presence provides the grounding for meaningful reflections in extended consciousness. And presence may be intrinsically emotional, as mentioned earlier.

5 Future Research Directions

 Unfortunately, little research in psychotherapy has so far investigated how to evoke a range of different emotions through the use of virtual worlds, and we see this as a very promising area for future research. This is one aim of the recently started EMMA project, in which we are involved (see Alcañiz et al., 2002). As an example of possible approaches, we have started to develop linked virtual world-zones that can be navigated by what we call the ‘body joystick’. This technique was inspired by the immersive art works of Char Davies, especially Osmose (see Davies, 2003). Breath and balance are used to navigate within and between these world-zones, each of which is designed to evoke a specific emotion. Navigation in the virtual space becomes some kind of “psychofeedback”, as immersants learn to control their bodies to move between different emotion zones. The main aim of the environment is as a test-bed to explore the role of presence in the evocation and alteration of emotion.

Interactive art is another important area of future research on the nature of presence, and one that also provides insights into the therapeutic possibilities of presence. We have found that a sophisticated, shared VR environment combining a high level of immersion with a strong sense of social co-presence, can be effective in overcoming participants’ self-conscious fears of participation (Waterworth et al., 2002). It seems almost as if, given sufficient presence and suitable contents, participants have no choice but to abandon their fears. We think that this can potentially form the basis of learning experiences that facilitate adaptive psychological change. Note that the experience comes first – by our account it has its own inherent meaning – and reflection and consolidated change would come later.

The phenomena of altered and exaggerated presence open up additional research questions and possibilities. After experiencing environments such as Osmose, immersants often report extraordinary changes to their sense of being.  Standard immersive VR technology, combined with the bodily style of interaction (using only breath and balance) and engrossing and evocative content, seems to facilitate an unusual level of presence. Participants feel changed by the experience, and report a loss of reflective self-consciousness, which is compatible with the idea that presence is a product of core consciousness. When presence is sufficiently strong, attention is directed exclusively towards the here and now of the external world. There is no space left for internal worlds in which the self is modelled as an actor.

 This “superpresence” is abnormal; in everyday life we are never – except perhaps very briefly, and on rare occasions – so completely present. Normally, we experience a balance of presence and absence, depending on the needs of the situations in which we find ourselves. We must almost always attend to both, because the real world is a physically and socially dangerous place. But we have found that a well-designed and framed virtual world can serve as a safe haven, a place in which people report feeling extraordinarily present (Waterworth et al., 2001).

Another way of achieving extraordinary presence may be through “transfers between sensory experiences”, as Slater (2003) points out. By presenting information in altered modalities (sights as sounds, and so on) we are likely to not only change the nature of presence, but also elicit enhanced levels of presence. This new way of perceiving may also generate new creative insights (Waterworth, 1997).

We speculate that many common psychological problems, such as phobias, depression, anxiety, debilitating shyness and so on, arise from an imbalance in the relative levels of presence and absence. Specifically, we suggest that these problems may arise as the result of too little presence, sometimes in only specific situations, sometimes more generally. The sufferer focuses too exclusively on their idea of what is happening and their own place in it (their internal model of the situation or world), at the expense of experiencing their own, relatively unreflective, presence in the external situation or world. To lose the sense of presence is to lose one’s sense of being in the world, and is both an unnatural and a distressing condition.

We suggest that VR treatment for such conditions will be effective to the extent that it redresses the balance between presence and absence. People tend to settle into habits of mind that resist change. Evoking superpresence might be a particularly effective way of promoting beneficial psychological change from conditions characterised by an over-emphasis on the internal world. We imagine a future where immersive environments, designed in particular ways to elicit extra-ordinary presence, are routinely used to help both patients and normals recover or reinforce their sense of being.

6 Summary

There are often obvious biological reasons for many of the feelings we experience. We get hungry so that we will not allow ourselves to starve. We look for sex so that we will perpetuate our genetic heritage. We feel pain when we have been damaged, perhaps so that we won’t damage ourselves that way again, and also to ensure that we attend to our own repair. We feel fear when we are in a dangerous situation. And we feel present when we are conscious and in an external world.

We have presented the feeling of presence as a manifestation of core consciousness, which allows people to deal with the perceptual here and now of their current situation. VR can trigger a sense of presence by engaging the same capacities of core consciousness as are engaged by the real world. This is why, in principle, VR could engage any animal possessed of core consciousness. It is necessary, in organisms such as ourselves who also possess extended consciousness, that this feeling is distinguishable from involvement in what may be an equally emotionally engaging internal, conceptual, world, such as might be created when reading a gripping novel, or when fantasising about one’s own future or past.

Extended consciousness allows us to imagine almost anything. We often imagine presence in imaginary or fictional situations and, when we do, some of the same psychological processes are activated that allow us to experience an actually present world, including emotional responses. This is sometimes called suspension of disbelief, as when we read a gripping, highly descriptive novel. We have called this mental absence. But we do not confuse presence and absence. We may cry when we read a moving story, but we do not try to comfort the protagonists because we do not feel their presence in our world, nor our presence in theirs. To be truly present in a world is to feel and respond accordingly.

We have pointed to possible ways in which this approach might have an impact on research in psychotherapy and the arts. There is a particularly urgent need for more work to investigate the relationship between presence and emotion. Our view of presence suggests at least a couple of psychotherapeutic approaches. Presence can be elicited through designed experiences that lead to changes in the way the individual feels about a situation. It may also be that exposure to enhanced presence over time leads to fewer distressing reflections on the self in general. In other words, presence training may potentially lead to more balanced mental habits.

We see meaning as residing ultimately at the lowest level of concrete embodied experiences of external worlds – in presence – and not in the more abstract, higher level thoughts, reflections and imaginings that constitute our internal world. Our internal worlds and their meanings are built on the foundation of what it feels like to be consciously in a concrete external world, on what it means to be present.


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