Fran hobbles around on a walker in one of her lives, her steps slow and tentative. She is just shy of 90. Her hands tremble with Parkinson’s disease, and her eyesight is blurred by macular degeneration.

It’s her other life that brings a spark to those aging eyes. In that one, Fran bounds across a ballroom dance floor like someone in her 20s. She executes the precise moves of tai chi. She is a click away from dozens of friends.

Many people probably would regard the first scenario as Fran’s real life and the second one – which she enjoys as Fran Serenade in Second Life, an immersive, three-dimensional digital environment shared by the avatars of thousands of other participants – as fantasy. Don’t tell Fran. You will get a gentle but firm rebuke.

“It feels real to me,” says Fran from her Southern California retirement home. “It just added a dimension to my life that I never had before.”

You won’t get an argument from Tom Boellstorff, a UCI anthropology professor who studies Fran and hundreds of other people in Second Life. He maintains that terms such as “real” and “virtual” make a distinction in people’s lives that doesn’t really exist.

“In our physical world, not everything we do is real. And not everything we do online is unreal.”

“This is part of a debate that goes well beyond Second Life,” says Boellstorff, who began surveying Second Life inhabitants in 2004. “Even in our physical world, not everything we do is real. And not everything we do online is unreal.

“You can lose real money on the internet. If you’re learning German online, it’s still a real experience. Even if it’s online, you still feel real emotions.”

‘Something Very Different’

Only about 200 people could be found in Second Life when Boellstorff started his research. Now as many as 60,000 individuals are exploring the virtual world’s many “islands” at a time.

He uses the same tools to examine people’s lives that anthropologists would employ in any environmental setting – interviewing people, observing their interactions – but Boellstorff’s realm is the internet.

“I wanted to do something very different from traditional anthropological field work, and something that didn’t have a connection to what I had been doing,” says Boellstorff, who joined UCI’s anthropology department in 2002 and subsequently published a pioneering book on gay and lesbian Indonesians. “It’s a real fun twist to the research.”

He shifted his focus to Second Life residents with disabilities about four years ago, specifically, how they use technology to do things they can’t in the physical world.

Before entering Second Life, each participant selects an avatar – a graphical image that will represent him – or herself – and a fictitious name. Many people, including Fran, are hesitant to reveal their real names for privacy and other reasons, wishing to keep the two lives separate. Boellstorff picked Tom Bukowski.

In 2008, when he published Coming of Age in Second Life, Boellstorff was surprised by the stereotypical responses to his book and subjects. People too often believed that virtual-world residents were simply escaping reality.

“They certainly don’t have people like Fran in mind when they say that,” he says. Fran and the hundreds of other Second Life participants Boellstorff has interviewed enjoy a rich social life online.

“My friends in Second Life are just as real as friends in real life,” Fran says. “I’ve met people from other countries and all over the nation.”

Engaging Mirror Neurons

One thing Boellstorff didn’t expect to learn in his latest project: The benefits of Second Life don’t exist solely in the mind.

In the strange alchemy of the brain, Fran found she could do things she once dismissed as impossible. Somehow, watching her avatar perform a difficult tai chi move planted the suggestion that maybe she could too.

Soon, she did.

“Looking at what my avatar was doing, I started to notice that my leg muscles felt as if I were actually using them, and gradually, I became physically stronger,” Fran recalls.

Crossing the street became a bit easier. The curb that once seemed a mile high was more manageable. “I could see my body taking on strength,” she says.

“I could move better. I could walk better.”

Her daughter agrees.

“One of the most remarkable things we noticed seven years ago, when Mom first entered the virtual world, is that her strength, balance and other Parkinson’s symptoms improved,” says Fran’s daughter, who joined Second Life herself and adopted the avatar name Barbie Alchemi. “She told us she began to feel as young as her avatar looked.”

“When I saw the changes in Mom, I realized we needed to use Second Life to help others with Parkinson’s,” Barbie says. She and Fran founded Creations for Parkinson’s to raise money for research. Barbie built a virtual island in Second Life called Creations Park where visitors can dance, swim like a mermaid, ride horseback and ice skate.

So what’s really happening in Fran’s brain? Barbie suggests it could be a phenomenon related to mirror neurons, which she learned about during research on her mom’s illness.

“As children, our brains develop as we observe our parents and imitate their actions,” she says. “Mirror neurons can continue to change our brains – and perhaps our bodies – at any age.”

This was also experienced by Jadyn Firehawk, the avatar name for a former environmental sciences professor with disabilities whom Boellstorff has studied.

“My brain is inside my avatar seeing what my avatar sees.”

“When you’re looking at your avatar, something happens,” Jadyn says. “Your brain allows you to step inside your avatar and experience your life there. The same mechanism allows toddlers to learn how to move by looking at their mothers.

“It’s like seeing myself walking through Yosemite. My brain is inside my avatar seeing what my avatar sees.”

Boellstorff isn’t sure whether mirror neurons are responsible, citing the work of UCI colleague Gregory Hickok, professor of cognitive sciences and author of The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication & Cognition. “To really settle the matter,” he says, “it would be great to do a controlled clinical trial on this, but I’m not a medical researcher.”

Life ‘Building’ Therapy

Jadyn created a virtual Yosemite in Second Life, modeled after the physical Yosemite, complete with the sounds of birds and waterfalls. She used to hike in the valley as a professor. But enjoying its natural beauty the conventional way is no longer an option. Years of stress triggered PTSD symptoms related to her traumatic childhood.

“I just became overwhelmed,” she says of the publish-or-perish academic world. Depression and a suicide attempt left her unable to work.

Through Virtual Ability, a Second Life community for people with disabilities and their families, she discovered Ethnographia, an island Boellstorff set up a year ago.

Visitors use art and building tools to work through their difficulties.

“Instead of writing about your experience, you can build your own experience,” Boellstorff says. “Almost anything you want.” Jadyn is currently constructing a museum that showcases significant events in her life.

“It’s helped me in a lot of ways,” she says of her new “build,” the Second Life term for virtual worlds participants craft out of wood, stone and other materials. “Second Life helped me to cope.”

Meanwhile, Fran has lost some of the progress she initially made. Walking is more difficult, as is hearing. “Parkinson’s just takes away one thing and then another,” she says. Still, her neurologist is astonished, her daughter says.

“She told us she’s never seen any other patient with Parkinson’s disease for 12 years who’s doing this well,” Barbie says.

“Second Life just added so much to my life,” says Fran, who still ventures online occasionally to dance or meet friends. “I’ve had experiences I never would have had otherwise. I call it the fountain of youth.”

Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of UCI Magazine