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Awe and Depression: an attempt to intervene

To find out more about what links Depression and Awe, you can read the full article by clicking this link, for information about the PROMETHEUS project instead enter our dedicated section on the site or click here.

Per scoprire di più su ciò che lega Depressione e Profonda meraviglia, puoi leggere l’articolo completo cliccando questo link, per informazioni sul progetto PROMETHEUS invece entra nella nostra sezione dedicata sul sito o clicca qui.

In the field of mental fragility, when we talk about depression, we could always risk being misinterpreted by interlocutors unfamiliar with the subject. To define this disorder, which is not attributable to the simple “feeling down” or the feeling of sadness that is popularly evoked by the phrase “I’m depressed”, we can refer to the DSM-5, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to this reference manual for the diagnosis of mental disorders, we can speak of depression, or MDD (Major Depressive Disorder), only in the presence of five or more of these main symptoms: decline in mood for most of the day; decreased pleasure; significant weight loss; loss of energy; difficulty concentrating; suicidal ideation or thoughts of death frequently; feelings of worthlessness; reduced physical movement and slowing down. In addition to this, their presence must have been constant for at least two weeks.

Everyone has experienced symptoms of discouragement and sadness, even prolonged, that have left more or less important signs, but there is no overlap between the symptoms of those diagnosed with MDD and those who develop symptoms only related to it. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between a transient process triggered by life events that may require a period of emotional work and, why not, help, and a stable state that anchors people to despair without the means to cope with it and, moreover, that is established in many cases without any “triggering event”.  The definition of depression as a pathological disorder is in no way intended to devalue our personal suffering, or on the contrary to categorize a common state of human experience as a disease: a distinction is, however, necessary for a possible treatment in both cases. Understanding and treating the individual manifestations and symptoms allows in the first place to minimize the effects of the disease, after which it ensures the welfare of all those who for various reasons experience the same feelings and emotions.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic, burdened by numerous states of lockdown, has in fact negatively affected everyone’s mood and it seems that it will worsen in the medium/long term: in particular on those who already had previous difficulties, or a predisposition to depressive states. And we’re not just talking about “being able to go out for an aperitif”: not being able to enjoy community relations, play sports or go to the theater has certainly cast a pall of despair over an ever-increasing segment of the population. As of today, an estimated 12% of people suffer from MDD.

It goes without saying that the consequences for the well-being of our society could be truly deleterious: in addition to the obvious difficulties in the personal and social spheres of those suffering from MDD, the risk of suicide related to this disorder is very high. In 2019 in America, suicide was the second most common cause of death, with 11.8% of young adults ages 18-25 having suicidal thoughts and 1.8% actually enacting an attempt to take their own life.

As researchers, wellness psychologists, and citizens, the question we can ask ourselves and want to ask those who read us is: how do we play it safe? How do we mitigate the effects of traumatic experiences, mental disorders, moments of weakness?

While social networks are swarming with renewed interest in self-caring and mental well-being, a symptom of an implicit demand from the population, the answer still seems to relegate the task of care to the individual, leaving room for “advice” instead of a social and joint interest in activating support services and prevention. Psychology has, as is obvious, taken this topic to heart, depression being a subject of the discipline since its inception. In particular, the framework of positive psychology in the last twenty years has directed the focus of research on specific positive emotions capable of promoting mental health: as natural boosters to create physiological, neurophysiological and psychological changes in those who experience them, these emotions would play a key role in mitigating negative emotions and stress, going to affect the symptoms of mood disorders. The cure, or answer, would then be of the same dough as the problem.

A particular case among them is that of awe, translatable as sublime, astonishment: an emotion originated by the encounter with something so vast, so disproportionate to us as to challenge us deeply.

Awe is an emotion with transformative power, linked to strong feelings of change that upset the mental patterns of the person who experiences it.

A breathtaking landscape, a work of art, awe at the magnitude of certain phenomena in the universe: events that trigger changes in us that can echo, multiply, and make us completely different from what we were before. It is a complex emotion, since it is made up of both positive and negative components: realizing one’s own smallness compared to a planet, a galaxy, the entire universe, may not be completely pleasant. Secondly, the complexity is reflected in the way it presents itself: the restructuring process that this emotion puts in place starts from a physiological or neurophysiological level, from the body, from the flesh in short, passes through a psychological level and spills over into the highest existential component of the individual.

In what way can an emotion affect a disorder such as MDD?

Exactly like the latter, awe composes its effects on different levels of human functioning, producing changes both in the short and in the medium/long term.

From a neurophysiological point of view, what happens in the short term when you experience this emotion is an increase in the frequency of the electromagnetic activity bands of our brain alpha and beta, while a decrease in gamma: translating the phenomenon, awe would have a strong improving character for cognitive processes. Symptoms of MDD include difficulty in concentrating and a feeling of mood decline, so a person could experience temporary relief by seeing a stimulus that generates in him this sense of awe. Always at brain level, the emotion would be linked to the decrease of activity of a circuit in the brain (The DFN, Default Mode Network) particularly related to depressive disorders: this is the neural system connected to the processes of self-processing and “wandering with the mind”, which would be a risk factor in considering the duration of MDDs.

From the psychological point of view, change taking place in the medium term with regard to perceptions, attitudes, emotions, the experience of the sublime generates a strong sense of resizing of the self, a focus on the world “outside” and “beyond” us: patients suffering from MDD, on the other hand, experience a strong focus on themselves, an inability to get out of their world linked to tendencies of mental rumination and despair. Awe drives the search for an external truth, an explanation that accounts for the majesty of an event, a concept, an experience. It prompts a reliance on science, research, and theories more closely related to the spirit: useful means to counteract MDD patients’ feelings of lack of meaning, order, and sense of the world.

The changes elicited by awe would also occur at the neuroendocrine level, with a decrease of pro-inflammatory cytokines, i.e. molecules that act as chemical signals used between the cells of the immune system to pass a message of “inflammation in progress”: these, in addition to having a particular role in Covid syndrome, are often the cause of symptoms very similar to those of depression.

We have seen how many elements related to experiencing awe in the short and long term can bring benefits to patients suffering from depression: but what can be a protective factor? Surely exposing as many people as possible to events that can elicit this emotion could be a proposal in line with this intent. The difficulty is not obvious, as it is difficult to find topics worthy of raising awe in people and at the same time to be proposed to a wide audience.

We at Experience Lab, based on the scientific evidence available today, suggest that the best option is to invest in new generations, involving them through innovative and not obvious ways of education and training: enter into a direct dialogue, formative and challenging with students and future active citizens, giving them the opportunity to experience awe, wonder, awe towards the world of science and education. The sciences have always been the high point of human evolution and we are convinced that their power to deeply affect people through discoveries made in their respective fields of interest is a great drive for personal change and to elicit wonder.

Using the knowledge and resources that underlie the technological change that currently affects us as a human race, the goal is to allow as many as possible to experience this protective emotion, also responding to social demands from the point of view of training new talents and protecting mental well-being

This is where PROMETHEUS comes in, a joint project of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Fondazione Cariplo, Fondazione Sicomoro and Università degli Studi di Milano that aims to use inspiring theatrical experiences centered on the sublime to elicit awe and stimulate young people’s interest in science, technology and society (STS) subjects, an interest that is increasingly in decline. The opportunity to experience transformative experiences through the use of the arts in a school context not only follows the fundamental purpose of increasing interest in STS disciplines, but allows to go to create a preventive circuit with respect to depressive problems in young people through a path aimed at generating profound changes in students: the third and final level of awe, in fact, connected to the long-term consequences, is the one related to the existentialist component of human character. The feeling of awe has a strong ability to generate experiences of self-transcendence, able to expand our perceptions beyond the boundaries of the Self, generating a sense of connection with the world and with other human beings. Where depression creates cognitive fixity, inability to leave the boundaries of one’s own world “in pieces”, experiencing this emotion frees and sets in motion.

This is one of the objectives of the series of meetings that is starting in this period and of which you can find information on our website, in the news section. The path of PROMETHEUS will see the combined efforts of researchers, professors, actors and artists to create an “inspiration machine”, which we hope will have a positive and transformative impact on the minds and mental well-being of the students who will take part.

Nel campo delle fragilità mentali, quando si parla di depressione, si potrebbe rischiare sempre di male interpretati dagli interlocutori poco avvezzi all’argomento. Per definire questo disturbo, che non è ascrivibile al semplice “sentirsi giù” o alla sensazione di tristezza che popolarmente si evoca con la frase “sono depresso”, ci possiamo rifare al DSM-5, ovvero il Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Secondo questo manuale di riferimento per le diagnosi dei disturbi mentali, si può parlare di depressione, o MDD (Major Depressive Disorder), solo in presenza di cinque o più fra questi sintomi principali: decadimento dell’umore per la maggior parte del giorno; diminuzione del piacere; perdita di peso significativa; perdita di energia; difficoltà di concentrazione; ideazione suicida o pensiero della morte frequentemente; sentimenti di inutilità; movimento fisico ridotto e rallentamento. Oltre a ciò, la loro presenza deve essere stata costante per almeno due settimane.

A tutti sono capitati sintomi di sconforto e tristezza, anche prolungati, che abbiano lasciato segni più o meno importanti, ma non vi è una sovrapposizione fra i sintomi di chi è stato diagnosticato con MDD e chi sviluppa sintomatologie solamente legate ad essa. Servirebbe dunque distinguere tra un processo passeggero innescato da eventi della vita per cui può essere necessario un tempo di lavoro emotivo e, perché no, di aiuto, e uno stato stabile, che àncora le persone alla disperazione senza mezzi per fronteggiarla e per di più che si instaura in molti casi senza alcun “evento scatenante”.  La definizione della depressione come disordine patologico non vuole assolutamente svalutare le nostre sofferenze personali, o al contrario incasellare uno stato comune dell’esperienza umana come malattia: una distinzione è però necessaria per un possibile trattamento in entrambi i casi. Comprendere e trattare le singole manifestazioni e sintomi permette in primo luogo di minimizzare gli effetti della patologia, dopodiché si assicura il benessere anche a tutti coloro che per motivi vari sperimentano le stesse sensazioni ed emozioni.

La recente pandemia da Covid-19, appesantita da numerosi stati di lockdown, ha infatti influito negativamente sull’umore di tutti e sembra che peggiorerà nel medio/lungo periodo: in particolare su chi già aveva difficoltà pregresse, o una predisposizione agli stati depressivi. E non si parla solo di “poter uscire a fare aperitivo”: non poter intrattenere relazioni comunitarie, praticare sport o intrattenersi a teatro ha sicuramente gettato un velo di sconforto su una fetta di popolazione sempre in aumento. Ad oggi si stima una percentuale di persone che soffrono di MDD del 12%.

Viene da sé che le conseguenze per il benessere della nostra società potrebbero essere davvero deleterie: oltre alle evidenti difficoltà in campo personale e sociale di chi soffre di MDD, il rischio di suicidio legato a questo disordine è molto alto. Nel 2019 in America, il suicidio è stata la seconda causa di morte più frequente, con l’11,8% dei giovani adulti dai 18 ai 25 anni che hanno avuto pensieri suicidari e l’1,8% di essi che ha effettivamente messo in atto un tentativo di togliersi la vita.

In quanto ricercatori, psicologi del benessere e cittadini, la domanda che possiamo farci e che vogliamo porre a chi ci legge è: come facciamo a giocare d’anticipo? Come si possono mitigare gli effetti di esperienze traumatiche, disordini mentali, momenti di debolezza?

Mentre i social pullulano di rinnovato interesse verso il self-caring e il benessere mentale, sintomo di una richiesta implicita della popolazione, la risposta sembra ancora relegare al singolo il compito della cura, lasciando spazio ai “consigli” invece che a un interesse sociale e congiunto nell’attivare servizi di supporto e prevenzione. La psicologia ha come è ovvio a cuore l’argomento, essendo la depressione materia della disciplina dai suoi albori. In particolare, il framework della psicologia positiva ha indirizzato negli ultimi vent’anni il focus della ricerca su specifiche emozioni positive capaci di favorire la salute mentale: come dei booster naturali peri creare cambiamenti fisiologici, neurofisiologici e psicologici in chi le prova, queste emozioni avrebbero un ruolo chiave nel mitigare emozioni negative e stress, andando ad influire anche sui sintomi dei disturbi dell’umore. La cura, o risposta, sarebbe quindi della stessa pasta del problema.

Un particolare caso fra di esse è quello della profonda meraviglia: un’emozione originata dall’incontro con qualcosa di talmente vasto, talmente sproporzionato rispetto a noi da metterci profondamente in discussione.

La profonda meraviglia è un’emozione dal potere trasformativo, legata a forti sensazioni di cambiamento che stravolgono i pattern mentali della persona che la prova. Un paesaggio mozzafiato, un’opera d’arte, la soggezione verso la grandezza di alcuni fenomeni dell’universo: eventi che attivano dei cambiamenti in noi capaci di fare eco, di moltiplicarsi, di renderci completamente diversi da quello che eravamo precedentemente. È un’emozione complessa, poiché costituita da componenti sia positive sia negative: rendersi conto della propria piccolezza rispetto a un pianeta, una galassia, l’intero universo, può non essere completamente piacevole. In secondo luogo, la complessità si ripercuote nel modo in cui si presenta: il percorso ristrutturante che questa emozione mette in atto parte da un livello fisiologico o neurofisiologico, dal corpo, dalla carne insomma, passa attraverso un piano psicologico e si riversa nella più alta componente esistenziale dell’individuo.

In che modo può però un’emozione andare a influire su un disturbo come la MDD?

Esattamente come quest’ultimo, la profonda meraviglia compone i suoi effetti su diversi livelli del funzionamento umano, producendo cambiamenti sia nel breve che nel medio/lungo termine.

Dal punto di vista neurofisiologico ciò che accade nel breve termine quando si sperimenta questa emozione è un innalzamento di frequenza delle bande di attività elettromagnetiche del nostro cervello alpha e beta, mentre una diminuzione delle gamma: traducendo il fenomeno, profonda meraviglia avrebbe un forte carattere migliorativo per i processi cognitivi. Fra i sintomi della MDD figurano difficoltà di concentrazione e sensazione di decadimento dell’umore, quindi una persona potrebbe sperimentare un temporaneo sollievo grazie alla visione di uno stimolo che generi in lui questo senso di profonda meraviglia. Sempre a livello cerebrale, l’emozione sarebbe legata alla diminuzione di attività di un circuito nel cervello (Il DFN, Default Mode Network) particolarmente legato ai disturbi depressivi: questo il sistema neurale connesso ai processi di auto-elaborazione e del “vagare con la mente”, che sarebbero un fattore di rischio nel considerare la durata dei MDDs.

Dal punto di vista psicologico, cambiamento avente luogo nel medio termine riguardo a percezioni, atteggiamenti, emozioni, l’esperienza del sublime genera un forte senso di ridimensionamento del sé una focalizzazione verso il mondo “al di fuori” e “oltre” noi: i pazienti che soffrono di MDD d’altra parte, sperimentano un forte focus su sé stessi, un’incapacità di uscire dal proprio mondo legato a tendenze di ruminazione mentale e disperazione. Profonda meraviglia spinge alla ricerca di una verità esterna, di una spiegazione che dia conto della maestosità di un avvenimento, di un concetto, di un’esperienza. Spinge ad affidarsi alla scienza, alla ricerca e alle teorie più legate allo spirito: utili mezzi per contrastare la sensazione di mancanza di significato, ordine e senso del mondo dei pazienti con MDD.

I cambiamenti elicitati da profonda meraviglia avverrebbero anche a livello neuroendocrino, con una diminuzione di citochine pro-infiammatorie, ovvero molecole che fungono da segnali chimici usati tra le cellule del sistema immunitario per passare un messaggio di “infiammazione in atto”: queste, oltre ad avere un particolare ruolo nella sindrome Covid, spesso sono causa di sintomatologie aventi sintomi molto simili a quelli depressivi.

Abbiamo visto quanti elementi legati al provare Profonda meraviglia nel breve e lungo periodo possono portare benefici ai pazienti che soffrono di depressione: ma quale può essere un fattore protettivo? Sicuramente esporre il maggior numero di persone a eventi che possano elicitare questa emozione potrebbe essere una proposta in linea con questo intento. La difficoltà non è scontata, essendo difficile trovare argomenti degni di sollevare profonda meraviglia nelle persone e allo stesso tempo da poter proporre ad una audience vasta.

Noi di Experience Lab, basandoci sulle evidenze scientifiche ad oggi disponibili, suggeriamo che la migliore possibilità sia quella di investire sulle nuove gene razioni, coinvolgendole tramite modalità di educazione e formazione innovative e non scontate: entrare in un dialogo diretto, formativo e sfidante con gli studenti e futuri cittadini attivi, dando loro modo di sperimentare soggezione, stupore, profonda meraviglia nei confronti del mondo della scienza e dell’istruzione. Le scienze sono da sempre il punto più alto dell’evoluzione dell’uomo e siamo convinti che il loro potere di colpire nel profondo le persone tramite le scoperte effettuate nei rispettivi campi di interesse sia un grande drive per il cambiamento personale e per elicitare meraviglia. Utilizzando le conoscenze e le risorse che stanno alla base del cambiamento tecnologico che ci interessa attualmente come genere umano, l’obiettivo è quello di permettere a quanti più possibile di sperimentare questa emozione protettiva, rispondendo anche a richieste sociali dal punto di vista della formazione di nuovi talenti e della protezione del benessere mentale

Entra in gioco qui PROMETHEUS, progetto congiunto di Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Fondazione Cariplo, Fondazione Sicomoro e Università degli Studi di Milano che si prefigge di utilizzare esperienze teatrali ispiranti e centrate sul sublime per elicitare profonda meraviglia e stimolare i giovani all’interesse verso le materie scientifiche, tecnologiche e della società (STS), interesse sempre più in calo. La possibilità di sperimentare esperienze trasformative grazie all’utilizzo delle arti in un contesto scolastico non solo segue lo scopo fondamentale di aumentare l’interesse verso le discipline STS, ma permette di andare a creare un circuito preventivo rispetto alle problematiche depressive nei più giovani attraverso un percorso volto a generare cambiamenti profondo negli studenti: il terzo ed ultimo livello di profonda meraviglia, infatti, connesso alle conseguenze a lungo termine, è quello legato alla componente esistenzialista del carattere umano. Il sentimento di profonda meraviglia ha una forte capacità nel generare esperienze di auto trascendenza capaci di espandere le nostre percezioni oltre ai confini del Sé, generando un senso di connessione col mondo e con gli altri esseri umani. Dove la depressione crea fissità cognitiva, incapacità di uscire dai confini del proprio mondo “in pezzi”, sperimentare questa emozione libera e mette in moto.

Questo è fra gli obiettivi del ciclo di incontri che sta partendo in questo periodo e di cui potete trovare informazioni sul nostro sito, nella sezione news. Il percorso di PROMETHEUS vedrà gli sforzi congiunti di ricercatori, professori, attori e artisti per creare una “macchina dell’ispirazione”, che ci auguriamo possa avere un impatto positivo e trasformativo sulle menti e sul benessere mentale degli studenti che prenderanno parte.


Social comparison on social media and psychological wellbeing: a positive relationship during COVID-19 crisis

A cura di Edoardo Cascio

Read the original article

Have we ever confronted ourselves with people we follow on social media? Have we ever experienced  positive or negative emotions during their use? Can these tools be considered as psychological resources or only as a personal showcase?
Facebook newsfeed or Instagram daily stories provide a great flow of information on friends’ lives, their successes, abilities, emotions and personalities, creating a perfect ground for  comparison with others to take place (Gerson, Plagnol, & Corr, 2016Ruggieri, Bonfanti, Passanisi, Pace, & Schimmenti, 2021).

Online social comparison (SCO) have often been associated with negative effects on psychological well-being. For example, recent studies have suggested that people frequently engaging in social comparison on Facebook felt they were less socially connected to others (Lee, 2014). In other words, it would seem that prolonged use of Facebook is associated with the inclination to confront with others on the platform; this would result in less self-esteem and ability to feel socially connected with one’s contacts and affections, and in general a widespread sense of uncertainty.
However, the relationship between SCO and psychological well-being does not seem to have been fully clarified. What could be the advantages and positive effects of social media use on psychological health? What conditions would allow these tools to be considered as advantages rather than as problems?

The recent health and social crisis caused by COVID-19 could help us to better understand these aspects; Ruggieri and collaborators have argued if social media and SCO could improve the prolonged condition of quarantine and social isolation due to the pandemic and its negative impact on the health and psychological well-being of individuals (Brooks et al., 2020). In particular, the authors tried to test two hypotheses:

1.  Social isolation due to quarantine has had a profound negative impact on mental health of individuals who have experienced it; the pandemic impact on mental health has not yet been fully clarified, but it is clear that the health and economic crisis and the sudden change in lifestyle habits may have worsened the general well-being;

2.  Despite an expected worsening of the psychological well-being of those who are experiencing the pandemic and lockdown, it is believed that dialogue and confrontation on social media with others can help people to live more serenely this period, improving their overall well-being.

In the 2020 longitudinal study, the authors have administered online three questionnaires to 200 selected subjects in order to measure the perceived levels of depression, anxiety, stress (Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale, Henry & Crawford, 2005), loneliness (The Three-item Loneliness scale, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004) and life satisfaction (Satisfaction with Life Scale, Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) during lockdown. The study was conducted from 7th March to 14th April, eighteen days apart. The researchers found higher levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness in the selected individuals. This situation would also appear to have worsened over the following months, causing greater concern. The authors then administered a self-report questionnaire, an adapted version of the Iowa-Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure (INCOM, Gibbons & Buunk, 1999), to explore how accustomed subjects were to online social confrontation through, specifically, Facebook. It would seem that social confrontation through Facebook may have decreased the level of distress and improved overall satisfaction towards one’s own life and relationships: at first high SCO scores would be related to anxiety, depression and loneliness but, as time passes and the pandemic advances they would be associated with greater overall life satisfaction. This result seems to be in line with previous research showing that individuals who are under threatening conditions of health tend to spontaneously compare themselves with disadvantaged friends in an effort to bolster self-esteem (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007). In addition, people subject to social restrictions may adopt such use of social media as a strategy to build and maintain relationships, lacking the ability to meet and confront face to face (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014). So, the authors seem to suggest that people who are experiencing difficult times because of COVID-19 are more likely to engage in online social confrontation as a positive resource to improve social connections and share their feelings of fear and uncertainty. The possibility of recognizing oneself in the other would therefore allow people to feel less unhappy their condition, thus improving the general well-being of the subject.

In conclusion, in a society that is now strongly accustomed and defined by the use of communication channels such as social media, we should evaluate the advantages and positive aspects that these tools could provide us, rather than only analyze their limits. If literature on internet and SCO harmful effects is substantial and widespread, new reflections capable of showing the other side of the coin are actually in the minority. Complex and unique situations such as this pandemic and social isolation could become opportunities to rethink the value we attribute to social media, wondering if it is in itself harmful or whether objectives and contexts of use could change its effects on our well-being and our vision of the world. In this sense, individual and social well-being appear less and less as static facts, but instead as strongly dependent on contexts where they are inserted. What can be harmful in specific situations can instead become a resource in others. We can therefore hope for new directions of research that provide reflections on the positive influence that an intelligent and careful use of these tools can give us.

Vi è mai capitato di confrontare voi stessi con le persone che tendete a seguire maggiormente sui social media? Vi siete mai sorpresi a provare  emozioni positive o negative quando usate questi canali di comunicazione? Questi strumenti potrebbero essere considerati come risorse psicologiche o solamente come una sorta di vetrine personali?

La newsfeed di Facebook o le storie giornaliere di Instagram forniscono un grande flusso di informazioni sulla vita degli amici e sui loro successi, abilità, emozioni e personalità, creando un terreno perfetto dove confrontarsi l’uno con l’altro (Gerson, Plagnol, & Corr, 2016; Ruggieri, Bonfanti, Passanisi, Pace, & Schimmenti, 2021).

All’utilizzo dei social media e al confronto sociale (SCO) che spesso ne deriva, sono stati attribuiti numerosi effetti negativi sul benessere psicologico. Ad esempio, recenti studi hanno suggerito che il confronto sociale su Facebook sembrerebbe determinare un senso di minore connessione con gli altri (Lee, 2014). In altri termini, sembrerebbe che un uso prolungato di Facebook sia associato ad una maggiore propensione al confronto con gli altri sulla piattaforma; tale confronto determinerebbe minore autostima e minore capacità di percepirsi socialmente connessi con i propri contatti ed affetti, ed in generale un diffuso senso di incertezza.

Tuttavia, la relazione fra SCO e benessere psicologico non sembrerebbe essere ancora del tutto chiara. Quali potrebbero essere i vantaggi e gli effetti positivi dell’utilizzo dei social sulla salute psicologica di ognuno di noi? Quali condizioni permetterebbero di considerare questi strumenti come vantaggiosi piuttosto che come problematici?

La recente crisi sanitaria e sociale dovuta alla diffusione del COVID-19 ha offerto la possibilità di comprendere meglio questi aspetti; Ruggieri e collaboratori si sono chiesti se l’utilizzo dei social media ed il SCO potessero migliorare la prolungata condizione di isolamento sociale che abbiamo vissuto durante la pandemia, ed il suo impatto negativo sulla salute e sul benessere psicologico degli individui (Brooks et al., 2020).

In particolare, gli autori hanno cercato di testare due ipotesi:

(i)L’isolamento sociale dovuto alla quarantena ha avuto numerosi effetti negativi sul benessere psicologico di chi l’ha vissuta. L’impatto sulla salute mentale della pandemia non è stato infatti ancora del tutto chiarito, ma risulta evidente che la crisi sanitaria, economica ed il cambio repentino di abitudini di vita possa aver peggiorato il benessere generale;

(ii)Nonostante un previsto peggioramento del benessere psicologico di chi sta vivendo la pandemia e la quarantena, si ritiene possibile che il dialogo ed il confronto sui social media con gli altri possa aiutare le persone a vivere più serenamente questo periodo, migliorando il loro benessere generale.

Nello studio longitudinale del 2020, gli autori hanno somministrato online tre questionari a 200 soggetti selezionati al fine di misurare i livelli percepiti di depressione, ansia, stress (Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale, Henry & Crawford, 2005), senso di solitudine (The Three-item Loneliness scale, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004) e soddisfazione generale verso la propria vita (Satisfaction with Life Scale, Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) durante la quarantena. Sono state effettuate tre rilevazioni a distanza di diciotto giorni a partire dal 7 marzo e concluse il 14 aprile.

I ricercatori hanno effettivamente rilevato nel campione alti livelli di stress, ansia e senso di solitudine. Questa condizione sembrerebbe essere peggiorata nel corso delle rilevazioni successive, destando preoccupazione per l’impatto sociale e psicologico negativo che questo periodo potrà avere successivamente sulla popolazione. Gli autori hanno poi somministrato un questionario self-report, un adattamento dell’Iowa-Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure (INCOM, Gibbons & Buunk, 1999), per esplorare quanto i soggetti fossero abituati al confronto sociale online, nello specifico tramite Facebook.

Dai risultati emersi sembrerebbe che il confronto sociale su Facebook possa aver diminuito nei partecipanti il livello di stress negativo percepito e migliorato la soddisfazione generale verso la propria vita e le proprie relazioni durante la quarantena: se in un primo momento alti punteggi di SCO sarebbero stati correlati all’ansia, alla depressione e al senso di solitudine, con il passare del tempo e l’avanzare della pandemia essi sarebbero associati ad una maggiore soddisfazione generale di vita. Questo risultato sembra in linea con ricerche precedenti, secondo cui gli individui in condizioni di salute a rischio tendano a confrontarsi spontaneamente con gli amici svantaggiati nel tentativo di rafforzare la propria autostima (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007). Inoltre, le persone soggette a restrizioni sociali potrebbero sfruttare i social media come strategia per costruire e mantenere relazioni, mancando ogni possibilità di incontro e confronto faccia a faccia (Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014). Dunque, gli autori Suggeriscono come le persone che stanno vivendo questo periodo difficile a causa della pandemia, siano più propense al confronto sociale online. Il confronto è divenuto una risorsa in grado di migliorare le connessioni sociale e un mezzo di condivisione dei sentimenti di paura ed incertezza. La possibilità di riconoscersi nell’altro permetterebbe quindi di sentire meno infelice la propria condizione, favorendo così il miglioramento del benessere generale delle persone.

In conclusione, in una società ormai fortemente abituata e definita dall’utilizzo di canali di comunicazione rapidi come i social media, occorrerebbe valutare i vantaggi ed aspetti positivi che questi strumenti ci forniscono, piuttosto che analizzarne solamente i limiti. Se la letteratura sugli effetti dannosi di internet e del confronto sociale online è corposa e diffusa, nuove riflessioni capaci di mostrarne il rovescio della medaglia sono effettivamente in minoranza. Situazioni complesse e difficili come quella della pandemia e dell’isolamento sociale, grazie alla loro unicità, possono diventare occasioni per ripensare il valore che attribuiamo ai social media, domandandoci quanto essi siano di per sé dannosi e quanto invece siano gli obiettivi ed i contesti d’uso a cambiarne gli effetti sul nostro benessere e sulla nostra visione del mondo. In questo senso, il benessere individuale e sociale appaiono sempre meno come fatti statici, ma invece come fortemente dipendenti dai contesti dove sono inseriti. Ciò che può essere nocivo in specifiche situazioni può invece diventare una risorsa in altre. Possiamo auspicare dunque nuove direzioni di ricerca che forniscano nuove riflessioni sull’influenza positiva che un uso intelligente e accorto di questi strumenti può donarci.


Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence. Lancet, 395, 912–920.

Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison orientation: A new perspective on those who do and those who don’t compare with others. In S. Guimond (Ed.), Social comparison and social psychology: Understanding cognition, intergroup relations and culture (pp. 33–48). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75.

Gerson, J., Plagnol, A. C., & Corr, P. J. (2016). Subjective well-being and social media use: Do personality traits moderate the impact of social comparison on Facebook? Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 813–822.

Gibbons, F. X., & Buunk, B. P. (1999). Individual differences in social comparison: The development of a scale of social comparison orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 129–142.

Henry, J. D., & Crawford, J. R. (2005). The short form version of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS-21): Construct validity and normative data in a large non-clinical sample. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44(2), 227–239.

Hughes, M. E., Waite, L., Hawkley, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2004). A short scale for measuring loneliness in large surveys: Results from two population-based studies. Research on Aging, 26(6), 655–672.

Lee, S. Y. (2014). How do people compare themselves with others on social network sites?: The case of Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 253–260.

Ruggieri, S., Bonfanti, R. C., Passanisi, A., Pace, U., & Schimmenti, A. (2021). Electronic surveillance in the couple: The role of self-efficacy and commitment. Computers in Human Behavior, 114, Article 106577.

Ruggieri, S., Ingoglia, S., Bonfanti, R. C., Lo Coco, G. (2020). The role of online social comparison as a protective factor for psychological wellbeing: A longitudinal study during the COVID-19 quarantine. Personality and Individual Differences, Elsevier.

Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3, 206.

“Stare a casa” non è sinonimo di sicurezza per tutti: l’incremento della violenza sulle donne durante il lockdown in Italia


A cura di Clelia Carvelli

Every day in Italy the phone of an anti-violence center rings: a voice, sometimes tired and frightened, tells its story and asks for help. The man who should love and protect her has become an enemy to defend against. Every day in a hospital a woman says she fell down the stairs, she accidentally banged her head or accidentally broke her arm in the trades: no strength to tell the truth, no energy to ask for help. Wounds, bruises, fractures are just the tip of the iceberg of a life that cannot be defined life if it lived alongside those who, instead of loving and supporting you, humiliates you, controls you, deprives you of all freedom, beats you and, in the worst cases, comes to kill you.

The global pandemic due to the spread of COVID-19 has forced us to stay indoors, avoiding any contact. Newspapers, television news, radio, social media and any other medium encouraged people to be safe by repeating the phrase “stay home” over and over. If for many “home” is a safe place, synonymous with affection and serenity, what happens when “home” is not a safe place?

Home is not a safe place for women who are victims of violence. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is one of the most common forms of violence: it refers to the physical, sexual, emotional abuse and controlling behaviors employed by a partner or ex-partner on a woman (WHO, 2012; 2017). Some alarming data provided by the Italian National Department of Equal Opportunities report that there has been a significant increase in requests for help and telephone support during the period of the lockdown in Italy: in the first twenty days of April 2020, 1039 requests for help were received, triple if compared with the 397 requests from the same period in 2019 (Corriere della Sera, 2020).

An equally significant alarm comes from an important anti-violence center in Milan, one of the areas most affected by the pandemic: it is SVSeD (Service for Sexual and Domestic Violence). In contrast to the data provided by the Italian National Department of Equal Opportunities, the center recorded a decrease in requests for help during the lockdown period. It is important to underline this fact because a decrease in requests for help is not synonymous with a decrease in cases of violence, but rather with a difficulty in seeking help. There could be many causes: on the one hand, the search for  help by phone is difficult and dangerous if the partner is constantly present at home; on the other hand, doctors and health workers, overwhelmed by the emergency, may have “let their guard down” with this events (Barbara et al., 2020).

Feelings of anger, frustration, boredom and confusion caused by confinement (Brooks et al., 2020) and economic and social uncertainty would be associated to an increase of alcohol and drug abuse (CDC, 2020): abusive men often do use of alcohol and drugs, for this reason the risk of violent behavior could increase.

The violence perpetrated leads women to isolation, becoming unable to work, without income and incapable of taking care of themselves and their children (WHO, 2020). A network of institutions works every day to cope with this ever-increasing social emergency (Barbara et al., 2020). The anti-violence centers are made up of psychologists, psychotherapists, lawyers, doctors, gynecologists, volunteers, professionals from different sectors who work together to help women in difficulty. The goal is to offer concrete help to end the violent relationship, remove the perpetrator and put the woman in safety.

The global pandemic has paradoxically offered a greater chance for violent men to control and abuse their homebound victims. It is necessary that all operators do not let their guard down so that no violence is confused with physical trauma (Barbara et al., 2020): only in this way the system will continue to protect women and limit the damage of violence as much as possible.

As pointed out by Ertan and colleagues (2020) there is a need to promote and to increase action policies to prevent domestic violence: long-term preventive solutions should be designed, and the channels currently used should be implemented. If the contact is usually made through a call or access to the emergency room, it is necessary to integrate and adapt the services so that they are accessible despite the conditions imposed by the health emergency. We could design training for health personnel to improve the ability to identify cases of violence, or to a general implementation of the service network. However, what seems crucial right now is finding a way to offer direct and safe first contact that women can use from home.

For example, an application could be designed to offer a direct contact with the operators of the anti-violence centers: this would provide the possibility of a first contact and would partially overcome the problem of privacy. Women could ask for help without calling or going to the hospital. The application should be designed so that it is easy to access and, at the same time, guarantees safety for the woman in case the smartphone is controlled by the partner (for example, the messages between victim and operator could be automatically deleted).

Although the pandemic caused problems to the network of institutions working in this area, there is also the opportunity to consider new elements and new solutions to be integrated and strengthened. The technological world, by its nature, is fast and easily accessible to all: for this reason, a technological solution could be a valid support in anti-violence centers’ world. Later the service could be extended to deal with other situations of violence such as violence against children, sometimes involved in the dynamics of domestic violence against mothers.

Designing effective interventions is certainly complex because the contact with victims of violence, whether by telephone or in person, is a fundamental element. Coping with this emergency is truly a challenging but necessary task so that the uncertainty and difficulty of the period we are going through does not allow one of the most important social emergencies in the world to be neglected.

Ogni giorno in Italia il telefono di un centro antiviolenza sulle donne squilla: una voce, talvolta stanca ed impaurita, racconta la sua storia e chiede aiuto. L’uomo che dovrebbe amarla e proteggerla è diventato un nemico da cui difendersi. Ogni giorno in un Pronto Soccorso di un ospedale una donna racconta di essere caduta dalle scale, di aver accidentalmente sbattuto la testa o di essersi rotta il braccio facendo i mestieri: nessuna forza di raccontare la verità, nessuna energia per chiedere aiuto. Le ferite, i lividi, le fratture sono solo la punta dell’iceberg di una vita che non può essere definita tale se vissuta al fianco di chi, al posto di amarti e sostenerti, ti umilia, ti controlla, ti priva di ogni libertà, ti picchia e nei casi peggiori arriva ad ucciderti.  

La pandemia globale per la diffusione del COVID-19 ci ha costretto a rimanere in casa, evitando qualsiasi contatto. Giornali, telegiornali, radio, social e qualsiasi mezzo di comunicazione ha esortato a mettersi al sicuro ripetendo di continuo la frase “state a casa”. Se per tanti “casa” è un luogo sicuro, sinonimo di affetto e serenità, cosa accade quando non è così?

Casa non è un luogo sicuro per le donne vittime di violenza. L’Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) è una delle forme più comuni di violenza: si riferisce all’abuso fisico, sessuale, emotivo e ai comportamenti controllanti esercitati dal partner o dall’ex partner su una donna (WHO, 2012; 2017). Alcuni dati allarmanti forniti dal Dipartimento Nazionale Italiano delle Pari Opportunità riportano come vi sia stato un incremento significativo di richieste di aiuto e di supporto telefonico durante il periodo del lockdown in Italia: solo nei primi venti giorni di aprile 2020 sono giunte 1039 richieste di aiuto, il triplo se messe a confronto con le 397 richieste del medesimo periodo nell’anno 2019 (Corriere della Sera, 2020).

Un allarme altrettanto significativo giunge da un importante centro antiviolenza di Milano, una delle zone più colpite dalla pandemia: si tratta di SVSeD (Service for Sexual and Domestic Violence). Contrariamente ai dati forniti dal Dipartimento Nazionale Italiano delle Pari Opportunità, il centro ha registrato una diminuzione delle richieste di aiuto durante il periodo del lockdown. È bene porre luce su tale fatto poiché una diminuzione delle richieste di aiuto non è sinonimo di diminuzione dei casi di violenza, bensì di difficoltà nel cercare aiuto. Le cause potrebbero essere molteplici: da una parte la ricerca di aiuto telefonica è difficoltosa e pericolosa se il partner è presente costantemente in casa; dall’altra i medici e gli operatori sanitari, sopraffatti dall’emergenza, potrebbero aver “abbassato la guardia” rispetto a tali avvenimenti (Barbara et al., 2020).

I sentimenti di rabbia, frustrazione noia e confusione provocati dall’isolamento (Brooks et al., 2020) e l’incertezza economica e sociale porterebbero ad un incremento dell’abuso di alcool e droghe (CDC, 2020): gli uomini maltrattanti spesso ne fanno abuso, per questo motivo il rischio di comportamenti violenti potrebbe aumentare.

Le violenze perpetrate conducono le donne all’isolamento, divenendo incapaci di lavorare, prive di reddito e di capacità di prendersi cura di sé stesse e dei loro figli (WHO, 2020). Una rete di istituzioni lavora ogni giorno per fare fronte a questa emergenza sociale in costante aumento (Barbara et al., 2020). I centri antiviolenza sono costituiti da psicologi, psicoterapeuti, legali, medici, ginecologi, volontari, professionisti di diversi settori che lavorano unitamente per aiutare le donne in difficoltà. L’obiettivo è offrire aiuti concreti per porre fine alla relazione violenta, allontanare il perpetratore e mettere la donna in sicurezza. 

La pandemia globale ha paradossalmente offerto maggiore possibilità agli uomini violenti di controllare e di abusare delle proprie vittime costrette in casa. È necessario che tutti gli operatori non abbassino la guardia affinché nessuna violenza venga confusa con un trauma fisico (Barbara et al., 2020): solo così il sistema potrà continuare a tutelare le donne e limitare il più possibile i danni delle violenze.

Così come sottolineato da Ertan e colleghi (2020) vi è la necessità di promuovere e aumentare le politiche di azione per prevenire la violenza domestica: bisognerebbe progettare soluzioni preventive a lungo termine ed implementare i canali attualmente utilizzati. Se di norma il contatto avviene tramite una chiamata o l’accesso al Pronto Soccorso, è necessario integrare e adattare i servizi affinché siano accessibili nonostante le condizioni di reclusione domestica imposte dall’emergenza sanitaria. Si potrebbe pensare ad una formazione del personale medico specifica, affinché vengano ulteriormente migliorate la capacità di individuazione dei casi di violenza; oppure ad un’implementazione generale della rete dei servizi. Tuttavia, ciò che sembra fondamentale in questo momento è trovare un modo per offrire un primo contatto diretto e sicuro di cui le donne possano usufruire anche da casa.  

Si potrebbe ad esempio progettare un’applicazione che offra il contatto diretto con le operatrici dei centri antiviolenza: in tal modo si fornirebbe la possibilità di un primo contatto e si supererebbe in parte il problema relativo alla privacy. Le donne potrebbero chiedere aiuto senza telefonare o recarsi in Pronto Soccorso. L’applicazione dovrebbe essere progettata in modo che sia facile accedervi e, allo stesso tempo, garantisca sicurezza alla donna nel caso in cui lo smartphone venga controllato dal partner (ad esempio, i messaggi tra vittima e operatore si potrebbero cancellare automaticamente così da non lasciare traccia).

Sebbene la pandemia abbia messo in difficoltà la rete di istituzioni che lavora in tale ambito, si apre l’opportunità di prendere in considerazione nuovi elementi e nuove soluzioni da integrare e potenziare. Il mondo tecnologico, per sua natura, si presta ad essere rapido e facilmente accessibile a tutti: per questo, una soluzione tecnologica potrebbe essere un valido supporto nel mondo dei centri antiviolenza. Il servizio potrebbe in seguito essere esteso per fare fronte ad altre situazioni di violenza come quella sui bambini, talvolta coinvolti anche nelle dinamiche di violenza domestica sulle madri.

Progettare interventi efficaci è certamente complesso poiché il contatto con le donne vittime di violenza, che sia per telefono o di persona, costituisce un elemento fondamentale. Far fronte a questo bisogno risulta davvero un compito sfidante ma necessario affinché l’incertezza e la difficoltà del periodo che stiamo attraversando non permettano che venga trascurata una delle più importanti emergenze sociali nel mondo.


Barbara, G., Facchin, F., Micci, L., Rendiniello, M., Giulini, P., Cattaneo, C., … & Kustermann, A. (2020). Covid-19, lockdown, and intimate partner violence: some data from an Italian service and suggestions for future approaches. Journal of Women’s Health29(10), 1239-1242.

Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID- 19: Alcohol and substance use. Available at: https://www.cdc .gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/alcohol-use.html Accessed July 1, 2020

Ertan, D., El-Hage, W., Thierrée, S., Javelot, H., & Hingray, C. (2020). COVID-19: urgency for distancing from domestic violence. European journal of psychotraumatology11(1), 1800245.

Serra E. In 20 giorni mille denunce di violenza al telefono. (In 20 days, a thousands reports of violence on the dedicated phone number).Corriere della sera.April 21, 2020.Available at: AccessedJuly 1, 2020.

World Health Organization. (2012). Understanding and addressing violence against women: Intimate partner violence (No. WHO/RHR/12.36). World Health Organization.

World Health Organization (WHO). Violence against women. WHO, November 2017. Available at: July 1, 2020.

World Health Organization (WHO) Global and regional estimated of violence against women. Available at: https:// 241564625/en Accessed May 3, 2020

L’effetto Overview: le potenzialità della visione del pianeta Terra dallo spazio

By Clelia Carvelli, Edoardo Cascio

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Cosa si prova a vedere la terra dall’alto? Molte volte ci è capitato di affacciarci dal finestrino di un aereo e sperare che nessuna nuvola ci impedisse di vedere il panorama sotto di noi; riuscire a scorgere con i propri occhi la bellezza e immensità del nostro pianeta che fin da piccoli vediamo disegnato sulle cartine; osservare le luci che illuminano le città, gli spazi immensi e gli uomini come piccoli puntini in lontananza. Quante volte siamo rimasti affascinati dalla visione di immagini della Terra vista dallo spazio? Un’esperienza simile è certamente rara per noi tutti. Sicuramente difficile da realizzare se non per gli astronauti. Quindi, chi meglio di loro potrebbe raccontarla?

Gli studiosi hanno definito questo fenomeno overview effect (White, 2014), ovvero un’esperienza travolgente che scaturisce dalla visione della Terra dallo spazio, seguita da una riflessione ed elaborazione di quanto abbiamo visto e provato in quei momenti (Nezami, 2017).
L’effetto sembrerebbe essere accompagnato da sentimenti di compassione e dal maggiore interesse verso la natura e il mondo; alcuni astronauti descrivono questa esperienza come qualcosa di auto-trascendente, in grado di farci avvertire una connessione profonda con ciò che ci circonda al punto da mettere noi stessi in secondo piano rispetto all’infinito dell’universo (Yaden et al., 2016).

Date queste potenzialità dell’overview effect e la difficoltà di ritrovarsi in situazioni capaci di generarla nella vita reale, alcuni studi si sono domandati se questo effetto fosse replicabile in laboratorio utilizzando lo strumento della realtà virtuale, uno strumento che ha già dimostrato di poter generare meraviglia e quindi apertura mentale (Chirico et al., 2017).

Numerosi studi hanno effettivamente mostrato la riproducibilità dell’overview effect in laboratorio, a patto che la situazione costruita sia caratterizzata, fra le altre cose, proprio dall’emozione della meraviglia. È il caso di un recente studio condotto su dei bambini dai 10 ai 12 anni che hanno sperimentato la visione della Terra dallo spazio grazie alla creazione di un ambiente virtuale ad hoc (van Limpt-Broers, Postma, & Louwerse, 2020). Da tale lavoro è emerso come esperire l’overview effect sarebbe persino in grado di migliorare l’apprendimento.

Gli studenti, come piccoli astronauti, dopo una breve formazione, hanno navigato nello spazio virtuale con una vera e proprio navicella e al ritorno hanno tenuto una conferenza stampa con amici e familiari. Tale esperienza è stata in grado di migliorare l’apprendimento dei nuovi piccoli astronauti. Questo risultato innovativo può aprire nuove strade verso la creazione di programmi di formazione che sfruttino le potenzialità dell’overview effect per aumentare le possibilità di apprendimento degli studenti.

Come evidenziato nel lavoro di van Limpt-Broers e colleghi (2020), alcuni elementi sarebbero in grado di favorire l’apprendimento tramitequesto effetto overview, per esempio, suscitando meraviglia e regalando l’illusione di essere realmente all’interno dello spazio virtuale (i.e., senso di presenza). Dunque, più gli studenti si sentiranno immersi ed in grado di interagire con lo spazio virtuale creato, maggiore sarà la probabilità che apprendano da tale esperienza.

In futuro, si potranno creare ambienti virtuali che riproducano la visione della Terra dallo spazio al fine di promuovere emozioni come la meraviglia e favorire così, attraverso l’overview effect, l’apprendimento di coloro che li sperimentano.


Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D.B. et al. Effectiveness of Immersive Videos in Inducing Awe: An Experimental Study. Sci Rep 7, 1218 (2017).

van Limpt-Broers, H., Postma, M., & Louwerse, M. M. (2020). Creating Ambassadors of Planet Earth: The Overview Effect in K12 Education. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 540996.

Nezami, A. (2017). The Overview Effect and Counselling Psychology: Astronaut Experiences of Earth Gazing. Doctoral thesis, University of London, London.

White, F. (2014). The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, 3rd Edn, Boston, FL: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Yaden, D., Iwry, J., Slack, K., Eichstaedt, J., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G., et al. (2016). The overview effect: awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight. Psychol. Conscious. Theor. Res. Pract. 3, 1–11. doi: 10.1037/cns0000086

Awe in science communication

By Clelia Carvelli, Edoardo Cascio

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Do all people end up being fascinated by great scientific discoveries or are some of us more predisposed than others to appreciate science’s awe? 

Does this fascination that science holds on us just show itself in front of great discoveries? Can we learn to experience awe with science? 

It seems that awe is a fundamental driver for orienting everyone’s interest towards the discoveries of science, but how can we make the entire scientific communication based on awe? 

Some scholars believe that awe is something universal for all of us (Keltner & Haidt, 2003), apart of culture, because there would be key stimuli capables of eliciting it regardless of individual differences. While the classic perspective met up with support and is sustained by several studies conducted in the recent years, another approach that sees emotions like awe as something rooted in a person’s context – the constructionist view – disagrees. Awe would be, even in science communication, the result of a constant interaction and “co-construction” of this emotion between the individual who experiences it and his or her environment. 

But how does an awe-based scientific communication change if this emotion is constantly “constructed” in our interaction with our specific and peculiar context? According to this logic, awe would not be innate but it would emerge as a result of scientific communication, shaped by values, norms, beliefs and ideals that are culturally considered important. It will therefore assume different forms and functions based on the context. In this sense, awe’s experiences that science communicators live would be the result of their previous experiences with this same emotion, as well as the cultural characteristics of their context.  

Moreover, awe, like all emotions, would have many functions. In science communication field, awe’s function would consist in generating curiosity and interest, appearing like an “epistemic emotion” (McPhetres, 2019Valdesolo et al., 2017). Therefore, a person who regularly experiences awe would have  a scientific mindset more easily.  

In this equation that appears so simple, the risk is to forget the role of context in which an individual, even if often experiences awe, is inserted. Indeed, human beings end up attributing a function to an emotion starting from collective intentionality (Barrett, 2012, 2017Hoemann & Barrett, 2019): as children learn what is right and what is wrong from the education of their parents, as well individuals “learn” certain emotions’ functions on the basis of the cultural context in which they are born and they live. 

Based on these considerations about awe’s nature, the strategies adopted in science communication to generate these emotions also completely change: many studies inspired by the classical view have presented vast and non-ordinary stimuli to elicit wonder, as a panoramic view from the top of a mountain or an airplane, adopting the so-called “Olympic perspective” (Campbell, 2016; Sage, 2008). However, thanks to the constructionist view, today we know that awe representations don’t always have to do with something vast or extraordinary: they can also be something small and daily. 

Awe is unique, but as we have seen it may have many functions and different roles: stimulating curiosity towards science is only one of them, and this function differs according to the culture. Furthermore, even the elements and characteristics that elicit awe are not always the same, but they also depend on the cultural context to which they belong. Therefore, we can talk about awe’s experience from a broader point of view, as a product of one’s own situational and sociocultural experiences with this emotion, not as a simple reaction to a given science communication event. The constructionist view can help researchers and communicators to tailor and refine their messages for specific communities and to achieve their specific communicative goals. The way we express emotions is essential: people learn emotional patterns by experiencing science communication, and that can impact on their subjective world. The role of scientists becomes fundamental, because we as communicators define the context that will impact on how people will experience awe as well. 

Tutte le persone finiscono per restare affascinate davanti alle grandi scoperte scientifiche oppure alcuni di noi sono maggiormente predisposti di altri ad apprezzare le meraviglie della scienza?  
Questa fascinazione che esercita su di noi la scienza si manifesta solo davanti a grandi scoperte? Possiamo apprendere a provare meraviglia per la scienza? 

Sembra che proprio la meraviglia sia un driver fondamentale per orientare l’interesse di tutti verso le scoperte della scienza, ma come si fa a improntare l’intera comunicazione scientifica alla meraviglia? 

Alcuni studiosi ritengono che la meraviglia sia un universale valido per tutti noi (Keltner & Haidt, 2003), indipendentemente dalla cultura, in quando vi sarebbero stimoli chiave in grado di elicitarla a prescindere dalle differenze individuali. 

Sebbene questa prospettiva classica abbia incontrato molto favore e sia supportata da diversi studi condotti negli ultimi anni, un altro approccio che vede le emozioni come la meraviglia come qualcosa di radicato nel contesto di una persona – approccio costruzionista – dissente ampiamente. La meraviglia, anche nella comunicazione della scienza, sarebbe il risultato di una costante interazione e “co-costruzione” di tale emozione tra individuo che la prova e ambiente in cui è inserito.  

Ma come cambia una comunicazione scientifica improntata alla meraviglia se questa emozione è costantemente “costruita” nella nostra interazione con un contesto specifico, peculiare e solo nostro? Secondo questa logica, la meraviglia non sarebbe innata ma risulterebbe come un frutto della comunicazione scientifica, modellata da valori, norme, convinzioni e ideali culturalmente considerati importanti. Assumerà dunque forme e funzioni differenti sulla base del contesto. In tal senso, le esperienze di meraviglia che vivono i  comunicatori della scienza  sarebbero il risultato delle loro esperienze precedenti con questa stessa emozione, nonché delle caratteristiche culturali del loro contesto di appartenenza. 

Ancora, la meraviglia avrebbe, come tutte le emozioni, numerose funzioni. Nel campo della comunicazione scientifica, la funzione della meraviglia consisterebbe nel generare curiosità e interesse, configurandosi, quindi, come un’“emozione epistemica” (McPhetres, 2019;Valdesolo et al.,2017). Dunque, una persona che sperimenta regolarmente la meraviglia sarebbe portata ad avere più facilmente un mindset scientifico.  

In questa equazione che appare tanto semplice, il rischio è scordarsi il ruolo del contesto in cui un individuo, pur portato a vivere spesso meraviglia, è inserito. Infatti, noi esseri umani finiamo per attribuire una funzione ad un’emozione a partire anche dall’intenzionalità collettiva (Barrett, 2012, 2017; Hoemann & Barrett, 2019), ovvero, come i bambini apprendono ciò che è giusto e ciò che è sbagliato dall’educazione dei propri genitori, gli individui “imparano” certe funzioni delle emozioni  sulla base del contesto culturale in cui nascono e vivono.  

A partire da queste considerazioni sulla natura della meraviglia e delle emozioni in generale, cambiano completamente anche le strategie adottate nella comunicazione scientifica per generare queste emozioni: molti studi ispirati all’approccio classico hanno presentato stimoli vasti e non ordinari per elicitare la meraviglia, come una visione panoramica dall’alto di una montagna o di un aereo, adottando la cosiddetta “prospettiva olimpica” (Campbell, 2016; Sage, 2008).  Tuttavia, grazie all’approccio costruzionista, sappiamo oggi che non sempre le rappresentazioni della meraviglia hanno a che fare con qualcosa di vasto o straordinario: può anche trattarsi di qualcosa di piccolo e quotidiano.  

La meraviglia risulta dunque unica, ma ha molte funzioni e differenti ruoli: stimolare curiosità verso la scienza è solo una di queste, ma tale funzione differisce in base alla cultura. Inoltre, anche gli elementi e le caratteristiche che elicitano la meraviglia non sono sempre uguali, ma dipendono anch’essi dal contesto culturale di appartenenza. Possiamo parlare dell’esperienza di meraviglia, quindi, come qualcosa di più ampio, come prodotto delle proprie esperienze situazionali e socioculturali con tale emozione, non come una semplice reazione ad un dato evento di comunicazione scientifica. Una visione costruzionista della meraviglia può aiutare a ridefinire la comunicazione scientifica di essa in funzione della comunità a cui si rivolge il messaggio e all’obiettivo comunicativo. È importante dunque il modo in cui comunichiamo le emozioni: nel fruire della comunicazione scientifica le persone assimilano conoscenze affettive che possono plasmare il loro vissuto soggettivo. Diventa quindi fondamentale il ruolo del ricercatore che fa comunicazione scientifica perché egli impatta sul contesto culturale che determinerà la meraviglia stessa. 


Barrett L. F. (2012) Emotions are real. Emotion 12(3): 413–429. 

Barrett L. F. (2017a) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Barrett L. F. (2017b) The theory of constructed emotion: An active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 12(1): 1–23. 

Campbell V (2016) Science, Entertainment and Television Documentary. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Hoemann K and Barrett LF (2019) Concepts dissolve artificial boundaries in the study of emotion and cognition, uniting body, brain, and mind. Cognition and Emotion 33(1): 67–76. 

Keltner D. and Haidt J. (2003) Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion 17(2): 297–314. 

McPhetres J. (2019) Oh, the things you don’t know: Awe promotes awareness of knowledge gaps and science interest. Cognition and Emotion 33(8): 1599–1615. 

Sage D (2008) Framing space: A popular geopolitics of American manifest destiny in outer space. Geopolitics 13(1): 27–53. 

Valdesolo P., Shtulman A. and Baron A. S. (2017) Science is awe-some: The emotional antecedents of science learning. Emotion Review 9(3): 215–221. 

Measuring Awe: Italian validation of Awe Experience Scale

By Edoardo Cascio

Awe is a complex emotion, and has been an object of curiosity over the centuries. It is considered as a core moment of profound transformation, in relation to a sense of possibility to change. However, even if awe has a long history in philosophy, only recently it has been studied with scientific method: Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt published the first contribution to awe research only in 2003. The authors analyzed the properties of awe, in particular they identified two main characteristics of this emotion: awe is elicited by stimuli characterized by vastness (ideal and physical magnitude) and need for accomodation, the need to transform current mental frames resulting from this new experience.

In these two decades, scientists have acquired much more knowledge about this particular emotion: they discovered its effects on human behaviour and  attitudes; for example, it has been shown that the experience of awe can promote pro-social attitudes (Prade & Saroglou, 2016) and creative thinking (Guilford, 1950; Torrance, 1969). However, experimental research on awe has been limited by the lack of a state measure of it: for this reason, in 2018 David Bryce Yaden and collaborators have conducted two studies to develop a robust state measure of awe, Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S). Thanks to an exploratory and then a confirmatory factor analysis, the authors have identified a six-factors structure under awe.

If you are interested in the validation process, check here the article we collaborated to write:

This foundational article has given a powerful tool to scientists from all around the world to measure awe experiences, allowing them to study this emotion further.

In Italy, the original questionnaire has been translated in Italian. This process has been complex because of the difficulty in translating “awe” in our language, so we used a periphrasis to better communicate the meaning of the word, both positive and negative. Awe-S has been administered online through Qualtrics with four other questionnaires to establish convergent and divergent validity. Awe Experience Scale is composed of thirty items based on literature, a number of dimensions of awe that have been discovered in empirical research. Some examples are “I experienced something greater than myself” (item 7) or “I had the sense of being connected to everything” (item 12). The questions are preceded by a simple task to elicit memories of emotion experiences: participants have to concentrate on a particular time of their life, fairly recently, when they felt intense awe. The results obtained are consistent with Yaden’s and collaborators’ work: the exploratory factor analysis (EFA) shows six main factors under awe:

(i)Self-diminishment: the “small effect” individuals feel in front of a vast stimuli they cannot understand;

(ii)Connectedness: when in awe, people feel connected to each other and to the whole world (Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019);

(iii)Vastness: the perception of stimuli as perceptually and conceptually vast;

(iv)Need for accommodation: the need to transform current mental frames according to new information;

(v)Altered time perception: awe experiences make people focus on the present, making them feel like inside a timeless bubble;

(vi)Physical sensations: awe has a strong impact on facial expressions: Shiota and Campos have identified jaws and eyes opening as a characteristic element of this emotion (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Schurtz et al., 2012).

A global factor has also been calculated with the addition of other scores.

We have also decided to analyze the main triggers of awe as reported by people: the most frequently occurring trigger was natural landscape, as well as childbirth.

We conducted an initial validation of the AWE-S by comparing it with other scales that measure a number of emotions, including awe. AWE-S factors correlated with dispositional awe as expected; on the other hand an interesting difference with Yaden’s results emerged: in our work there is a higher correlation of awe factors with negative emotions, stressing the negative valence of this mixed emotion. We can also confirm that awe can make people feel stressed, nervous, overwhelmed in response to the experience.

In conclusion, the exploratory factor analysis has provided a robust multi-factor structure of awe, in continuity with Yaden’s and collaborators’ work. This is an important first step to allow scientists in Italy to measure awe experiences and to expand our knowledge of this emotion. However, a confirmatory factor analysis is needed to produce new insights on awe in our country and culture.


Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: the ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2), 105-127. doi:10.1080/17439760802650519

Guilford, J. (1950). Сreativity/JP Guilford. Аmerican psychologist(5), 444-454.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.

Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Ruberton, P. M., Chancellor, J., Cornick, J. E., Blascovich, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2019). The proximal experience of awe. PloS one, 14(5), e0216780. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216780

Prade, C., & Saroglou, V. (2016). Awe’s effects on generosity and helping. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 522–530.

Schurtz, D. R., Blincoe, S., Smith, R. H., Powell, C. A., Combs, D. J., & Kim, S. H. (2012). Exploring the social aspects of goose bumps and their role in awe and envy. Motivation and Emotion, 36(2), 205–217.

Torrance, E. P. (1969). Creativity. What Research Says to the Teacher, Series. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Yaden, D. B., Kaufman, S. B., Hyde, E., Chirico, A., Gaggioli, A., Zhang, J. W. & Keltner, D. (2018) The development of the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S): A multifactorial measure for a complex emotion

The effects of an ecological diversifying experience on creativity: an experimental study

Alice Chirico1*Sofia Carrara2Sofia Bastoni2Elena Gianotti2 and Andrea Gaggioli2,3

Life is capable of covering us with surprises that can make us feelings: strange, unique, surprising, different and exceptional. Some of these may concern breathtaking views, indelible friendships, loves that have upset us, births and deaths. These are just some of what have been referred to as “Disversify Experience (DE)” (Damian & Simonton, 2014). These experiences inevitably touch everyone’s life and, as unexpected as they are, you have to face them giving a meaning, transforming chaos into a cosmos.

But when can these events be described as DE? Certainly not all these events represent an experience of this type, below we explain the circumstances in which they are:
(i) Some cognitive violation is needed. It is not necessary to move from a country to another, without a job and without knowing a single word of the country’s leanguage. It would be enough to be exposed to some kinds of elementary violations, something that could be done also in Virtual Reality or in reality. For instance, Ritter et al. (2012) created scenarios in which logic of physics was violated (e.g., a fallen glass lifting instead of shattering into thousand pieces) either involving participants actively [through a virtual reality (VR) simulation] or passively (through a movie). Also, in Ritter et al. (2014) individuals were not directly engaged into specific paradoxical action plans but when they identified with other individuals realizing paradoxical actions… Just observing something weird can be a starting point to generated a DE.

(ii) A specific appraisal of the situation. Appraising a situation as a challenge, instead of as a threat would more likely lead to a DE .. It means that we do not feel just overwhelmed and defeated. Instead, we feel that we have enough skills, energies to face the event (Gocłowska et al., 2018).
(iii) Moving forward. Surprise and challenge are not enough to lead to a DE. We should also perceive the experience positively. Being motivated to look for more information, connecting even distant ideas and process more data should be the key (Gocłowska et al., 2018).
(iv) The body. Some body-related violations could foster cognitive flexibility as a preliminary (Huang and Galinsky, 2011).
(v) Individual differences. We do not react the same way to the same violations. Some people with lower need for fixed structure and higher openness to experience are more likely to build upon schema violation towards a DE. Those higher in the former and lower in the latter would “resist” to the violation and, to some extent, also refuse it ..
[see our article:]
DEs are relevant in becouse they are capable of increasing creativity, especially creative thinking. After an DE, people can easily connect the concepts of distance, flexibility and generate new ideas. The question to ask is: can a natural and an artificial DE create the same creative empowerment? We relied on a special case of DE in real life, the one created by the Institute of Blinds in Milan, which is a famous format called “Dialogue in the Dark”, the latter proposes the user to live in first person as a blind, in a totally dark path, in which the user experiences the various contexts of life in the absence of light (for example the market, the park, the bar, etc.). These were the two experimental conditions that our participants underwent (presence or absence of light).

Only one condition for each participant. Our research question was simple: “Dialogue in the Dark” how does DE stimulate creative thinking? Not exactly!
Creativity scores were significantly higher in the conditions where light was present! People who carried out activities in the presence of light were more creative immediately after the experience than the other participants who carried out the same activities but in the absence of light. However, “Dialogue in the Dark” was a real DE compared to the other. It was perceived positively and as a challenge. And we know that DE requires an effort to be integrated into our current mental pattern … so it would take longer to capture the impact of this DE on creativity.

This research has certainly left an important tip: taking the time to understand and look beyond when life tests you.

– If you want to find out more about “Dialogue in the Dark”:

– Chirico A. Blog, Full Article:

– Full Paper:

– Gaggioli A. Twitter:

The increasing demand for user experience (UX) experts

By Andrea Gaggioli 

Today, user experience is one of the more frequently-used terms in the innovation strategies of companies and organizations. Whether it is about the development of an e-commerce site, a new digital learning environment, an app or an interactive exhibition – in all these cases, the fundamental goal is to design an effective, emotionally engaging, aesthetically pleasing, and possibly memorable experience.

Achieving this result requires the ability to understand and meet people’s needs, expectations and motivations.

Designing an optimal user experience also requires the ability to understand how to make it unique, personal, and authentic, developing a deep connection with the user’s psychology. Finally, the ability to translate these psychological dimensions into design elements – interfaces, interaction models, contents – that are accessible to all, easy to use and learn, comes into play. The combination of this knowledge represents the central core of an emerging discipline – the User Experience (UX) – which is the basis of one of the most sought professional skills in the job market, and in particular from the digital world: having in mind that LinkedIn includes it between top 5 hard skills most wanted by companies in 2020.

The growing demand for UX experts is motivated by the awareness that today designing optimal experiences for its customers/users is a fundamental accelerator of business growth: it is estimated that improving the UX of a website can result in an increase in the conversion rate (the percentage of visitors who complete the desired goal) up to 400%! On the other hand, the gap relating to the training of these professional figures is still high: becoming an expert in UX requires the development of a multidisciplinary set of skills, ranging from human-computer interaction to design, from psychology to marketing. Moreover, to these technical skills, “soft” skills are added, which include the ability to involve all stakeholders, to know how to collaborate creatively within a diversified team, to build realistic scenarios and use cases, to be able to “metabolize” large quantities of data and information quickly, and be able to communicate effectively.

Future developments of UX are also marked by an extremely positive market outlook: companies have now gained full awareness that in order to be successful in the emerging “experience economy”, they will have to focus decisively on the UX factor. However, to do this they will have to face some fundamental challenges: (i) increase the personalization of their offer (which, in essence, means improving the ability to understand their customers, in terms of needs, expectations, habits, lifestyles, etc.); (ii) build trust in the brand, through a history of successful interactions; (iii) knowing how to empathize with its users, managing to involve them not only on a rational level but also (and above all) on an emotional level.

Taking people’s experiences to heart does not only mean achieving business objectives, adapting one’s offer adequately; it also means contributing to the positive evolution of society, promoting innovation more sensitive to the fundamental values ​​of the person and the community.

This translates, for example, into the ability to give proper attention to aspects relating to security, privacy, ethics, and sustainability. Virtual/augmented reality, robotics, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things are technologies that will transform our lives in a radical and irreversible way: bringing man and his experience back to the center of the innovation process is, therefore an inescapable necessity. As psychologists know well, the experience is the fundamental engine of the processes of change and personal development: therefore, becoming an experience designer also means taking responsibility for guiding the transformative processes of our society, and ultimately, shaping our future.
Would you like to know more? Contact the author: *Professor of General Psychology at Faculty of Arts and Philosophy

Director of the Experience Lab

Phygital spaces: when atoms meet bits

By Andrea Gaggioli

“Phygital” – a neologism that comes from the crasis of the terms “physical” and “digital” – refers to a new concept of space that originates from the increasing convergence of the physical dimension and the virtual dimension. Augmented reality, Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming our living spaces – house, office, public places etc. – in digitally-enriched environments that blur the distinction between the “real” and the “simulated”.   

In these hybrid phygital ecosystems, objects, tools and even bodies can be turned into “programmable interfaces”, creating totally novel ways of experiencing space. For this reason, providing paradigmatic examples of phygital spaces is not easy: the possible ways in which the physical and digital worlds can be mixed are simply unlimited.

However, it is possible to envision some defining characteristics of these digital ecosystems. For example, a key feature of phygital spaces is that they are sensitive to the presence of people and aware of their situational context (contex-awareness): this is possible thanks to the integration of miniaturized computational infrastructures in everyday objects (i.e. home forniture, household objects etc). These embedded sensors are connected via wireless networks and can communicate to actuators in order to automate a number of operations and reduce human intervention, at the same time improving accuracy and easiness in doing these activities. Another key aspect of phygital environments is that they enable natural interaction, allowing people to interact with the augmented physical environment via gesture, voice, and movements. An interesting example of this trend are tangible user interfaces, in which users interact with digital content through the manipulation of physical objects.h

While these characteristics – context awareness, embeddedness and natural interaction – are common to other previous definitions of hybrid spaces (i.e., ambient intelligence, intelligent environments, augmented spaces, etc.) I think that the metaphor of “reality as an app” may well capture the essence of phygital spaces.

What this metaphor means is that the integration of computers in everyday objects and the increasing bi-directional information flow between the digital and the physical realm are transforming our cyber-physical environment (including our body) into a seamlessly programmable interface, in which every smart object can be creatively re-configured to provide new kinds of phygital experiences.

Intriguingly, the “applification of reality” could require new conceptual design approaches for enabling designers to “re-discover” smart objects’ functionalities and explore their proteiform phygital properties.

For example, in interaction design the concept of “skeuomorphism” refers to taking characteristics from real life objects and applying them to digital interfaces in order to foster a sense of familiarity in users. Typical examples of skeuomorphic objects are the scissors and a clipboard used to “cut and paste” text in word processors, the “trash can” for erasing files, etc.

The design of future phygital interfaces may be based on “reverse skeuomorphism”, in which physical interfaces tend to replicate the functions of their skeuomorphic digital counterparts. For example, in future phygital spaces I could eliminate my boss’ email that has been 3D-printed on my kitchen table, by physically throwing it to the trash.

Don’t VR alone! The rise of social VR experiences

By Andrea Gaggioli

Although the so-called “new wave of virtual reality” hasn’t taken off as quickly as some enthusiasts had anticipated, augmented reality and virtual reality market figures are quite encouraging: global spending on AR/VR is forecast to achieve a five-year compound annual growth rate of 71.6% over the 2017-2022 period, with headset adoption expected to increase from just under 10 million units in 2016 to 100 million units in 2021.

Despite these promising numbers, most tech analysts would probably agree that the real potential of this technology will never be released without the full development of “social VR”.

Actually, most VR apps provide solitary immersive experiences that do not take advantage of “being virtual together”. Yet hundreds of studies in the last two decades suggests that social presence is an essential ingredient of an engaging virtual experience.

In this sense, we are still far from the forecast that Mark Zuckerberg made in 2016 at the Samsung’s Galaxy S7 event, when he declared that VR will be the main social media platform in 5 to 10 years.

Inspired by science fiction novels, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the idea of a shared virtual world in which people interact through avatars has always had a central place in the evolution of VR. Despite the importance of this idea, there is still a lack of a commonly accepted vision of what a shared virtual world should be like.

Adopting a broad definition of social VR, one could include in this category the first Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and even some arcade combat games of the 80’s. Indeed, the success of these applications led to the development of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, more commonly known as MMORPGs, a genre of role-playing games in which a large number of players interact within a virtual world.

In 2003, the US company Linden Lab launched Second Life, a virtual world in which users could create and personalize an avatar to live their “second life” online. Second Life was regarded by media as one of the most important innovations in these years. In 2007, at the apex of its popularity, this community counted over 2 million of “residents” and a plethora of virtual places to explore, including cinema, concerts, schools, discos, shops and art exhibitions. However, despite the kaleidoscopic variety of its virtual scenarios, Second Life was not able to sustain interest beyond the hype balloon, and soon many companies and organizations which had created their branches in the virtual world diverted their resources back to “real” life. As of today, the number of Second Life active users has significantly dropped, but still counts more than half a million users.

Fifteen years after the exploit of Second Life, what are the best social VR applications? Although options are not lacking, the number of social VR platforms is still modest.

A first player in the social VR arena is Linden Lab’s Sansar. Although many consider this MMO VR application the “sequel” of Second Life, there are few important differences among these applications. First, Sansar has a platform-oriented architecture that consists of a number of interconnected user-generated virtual worlds, while Second Life was built as a giant, continuous virtual space. Furthermore, in Sansar each virtual environment acts as entry point to the platform, whereas in Second Life user accessed the world through one front door. Moreover, the creation of content in Sansar is more straightforward than it is in Second Life, giving the user the possibility to drag-and-drop objects directly into the scenes (although more sophisticated editing possibilities based on common 3D modelling tools should also be available for advanced users).

Another social VR platform that has made recent headlines in the news is AltspaceVR, an immersive VR environment where users can meet through their avatars, play games, watch videos and even browse the Internet using holographic-style windows. The platform was started in 2013 and backed by $15 million from prestigious investors. In its first years, the service was quite successful, hosting live events of celebrities like Reggie Watts, Bill Nye and Justin Roiland, just to name a few. By mid 2017, the company claimed 35,000 active users and was available for most VR headsets, including Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and the HTC Vive, plus the web browsers. In August 2017, though, AltspaceVR announced its closing down after running out of funding. However, a couple of months later the company was acquired by Microsoft, which was increasingly seeking to incorporate communications technology into their mixed reality ecosystem. After joining Microsoft, AltspaceVR is candidate to become a direct competitor of Facebook Spaces, the new virtual world of Menlo Park’s social media giant. AltspaceVR allows users to create their own avatars using their Facebook photos, enjoy 360 videos, draw 3D objects, video call friends outside of VR, and share selfies of their VR memories on Facebook.

Despite their huge firepower, Microsoft AltspaceVR and Facebook Space are not the only protagonists of the social VR arena. Other MMO VR apps are sharpening their weapons and and oiling their armor to win the metaverse race.

For example, JanusVR is a VR App for the Oculus Rift and SteamVR that allows the user to see and experience the internet through virtual reality. The application represent web pages as fully interactive rooms with doors acting as links between them. It allows users to have spatial walks through the internet.

In a similar vein, VRChat is a free MMO virtual reality video game that allows players to interact with others as 3D character models.

vTime – The Sociable Network is a completely cross-platform social VR application that allows users to meet, chat and share in VR. In April 2018, the vTime Limited announced that it had raised $7.6 million (£5.4 million) in a series A funding round to accelerate development of the app.

Also worth mentioning is Decentraland, the first virtual platform that is completely owned by its users. Like in other MMO VR applications, in Decentraland users are immersed in a shared virtual world that they can contribute to create. But the unique feature of this social VR platform is that it operates on a public blockchain, meaning that all virtual environments created using this ecosystem are public and globally accessible. Users can purchase land through the Ethereum blockchain, creating a record of ownership, without building limitations and with full control over the owned land.

In sum, the rapid emergence of social VR applications seen in recent years suggest that shared virtual worlds represent one of the hottest areas of development in this moment. Hopefully, this restless evolution will lead soon to the creation of easily accessible and scalable platforms, making the Metaverse dream finally come true.

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