What is it about?

What causes us to feel that we are 'present' in reality? By exposing people to extreme heights in virtual reality, we demonstrated that people feel more present when they become afraid. More surprising, though, is that physiological changes associated with fear (e.g., heart rate speeding up and increased sweating) were unrelated to presence, despite these physiological measures also increasing considerably during height exposure. In our study, we showed that changes in subjective measures of fear (not physiological changes) are shaping presence.

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Why is it important?

Our findings challenge current explanations about the mechanisms underpinning the feeling that we are present within reality. Prominent theories posit that presence is informed by signals from the body through a process known as 'interoception'. We found no evidence of a connection between presence and changes in signals from the body. Instead, our results are in line with a mechanism in which subjective feelings about the intensity of our emotional state give rise to presence.


This article has been a labor of love and an obsession of mine for years. It is the first project I have led in my early career as an experimental cognitive scientist, and it has been a transformative journey for me. I think that this article also demonstrates that Virtual Reality holds great promise for the improvement and advancement of experimental psychological science across many domains of research. Additionally, I think that investigating the aspects of experience that are linked to the sense of presence is a fascinating topic and it is my hope that this article will catalyze future research endeavors.

Christopher Maymon
Victoria University of Wellington

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The presence of fear: How subjective fear, not physiological changes, shapes the experience of presence., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, April 2024, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xge0001576.
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