Are Virtual Experiences Real?

A virtual church elicits the same spiritual feelings as the real thing.

Posted Nov 29, 2017

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When you go on a trip, it’s fun to visit the local sights. Some places are better when they are fairly crowded, like concerts and funny movies at the cinema. But some places provide better experiences when they are almost empty, like museums and national parks.

Another wrinkle is that sometimes tourism can actually hurt the place. So it’s great that people want to visit Yellowstone but the more people go see it, the more Yellowstone gets degraded.

The situation is even worse with historical sites. For instance, in Turkey, there is an underground city called Kaymakli. This amazing place gets slowly worn away as people tromp through it. So it stands to reason that if people could see a virtual version of it instead, it would reduce the wear and tear, as well as give an experience of being alone in it, rather than being herded through with a bunch of other tourists.

But would the experience be the same?

A few years ago, I and some colleagues submitted a grant to create a virtual version of Kaymakli, not only for tourism but also for study. We don’t know exactly what Kaymakli was used for, so maybe we could investigate it by putting people in the virtual environment and measuring their reactions. Does it provoke awe, for example? This grant wasn’t funded but Carleton University gave me a little seed money to get started. I used it to run a far simpler study.

I collaborated with a psychology graduate student, Matt Murdoch. We used a virtual version of a church made by our colleagues at Carleton and had people virtually walk into it. We also had other people walk into the actual church, and we measured the responses of both groups. It turns out that spiritual feelings were evoked in both the virtual and the real church.

This is great news for the study of the psychological effects of real places. This is not only because it’s often cheaper to run participants virtually but also because we can change the virtual environment. For example, we might want to measure what it’s like to be in a Roman Coliseum when it’s full of people and things just like were in the past. This something we actually can’t do in real life, practically speaking.

With a virtual environment, we have lots of experimental control and variables that are easy to play with. Luckily, we have some preliminary evidence that you can get complex emotional responses from them.

This link is a free download of the paper until about December 27, 2017.


Murdoch, M. & Davies, J. (2017). Spiritual and affective responses to a physical church and corresponding virtual model. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 20(11); 702—708.