The First Virtual Reality

Author Jonathan Gotschall

Author Jonathan Gotschall


Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, talked with Charlie Rose several months ago, about all things tech, but a good portion of the conversation was around the emergence of virtual reality. They discussed how VR is driving advances in medical diagnostic tools, but the conversation also covered mind-bending twists on our perception that begs the question what is real?

Let’s go back in time to look for the answer. “Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories,” Jonathan Gottschall writes in his book, The Storytelling Animal. He makes the case that then, as now, our species is addicted to storytelling. But when I heard Reid Hoffman enthusing about the potential of virtual reality, it reminded me of something Gottschall had said.


Gottschall proposed that stories were our first virtual reality experience, much like the flight simulators used to train pilots by putting them in potentially disastrous situations where the consequences are dire.

Stories were the homo sapiens equivalent of virtual reality, a vicarious yet visceral experience of something dangerous, a calamity to be avoided, an over-the-top heroic escape from something big, bad, and really scary.


Dr. Mathias Clasen, assistant professor of literature and media with Aarhus University, Denmark, suggests that watching horror movies can stimulate deep memories of frightening situations that our 21st-century selves no longer encounter.

According to Dr. Clasen, “When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in the East African savannah … they had to train their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in their DNA – which we still carry today. When we watch a horror movie, we’re satisfying that desire. We’re training our danger preparedness.”

To watch, read or hear a frightening story is to experience a reality generated by someone else that our nervous system claims for its own. In other words, scary, though not the only way to learn, appears to be an effective way to learn how to survive.


Australian podcaster Claire Testoni produces The Singing Bones, a deliciously scary telling of folktales, stories about the earlier, dark side of humanity; jealousy, greed, hatred, revenge. Maybe our worst selves are the basis for the other, the monster that snatches children in the night, invades mead halls, and sings sailors to their death with siren songs.  

Testoni notes that until the Brothers Grimm released their first volume of sanitized German folk tales, we didn’t have fairy tales, literally little flying creatures thought to be based on Celtic traditions of the other, known as wee folk. Before fairies we had lore, and it was almost exclusively scary.

Podcaster Aaron Mencke produces Lore, stories based on fact and folk lore, with the finest use of music to evoke mood I’ve ever heard. As Mencke often points out, the scariest monsters are in reality, us, the other part of ourselves best kept in the dark.  

Perhaps, NetFlix, HBO, Hulu and others like them, are the campfires of our digital age, offering stories that we binge watch as entertainment. After all, as director Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said, “Drama is like life with all the dull bits cut out.”  


While we loved to be horrified by Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones, celebrated the resourceful drunkenness of Tyrion Lannister, admired the courage of Daenerys Targaryen, or were uplifted by Jon Snow’s grim but steady moral compass, we were also learning. When we identify with others, even fictional characters, we experience reality from another perspective, a virtual point of view, and that’s a remarkably human thing.

Almost as remarkable, are the conversations we have about the stories we’ve heard. We talk about these fictions as though they are real. And that may be where Gottschall is on to something. No matter how sophisticated the production level or the user interface, a story is at the heart of every experience, and we propagate this virtual reality every time we share it with others.