This is fascinating stuff to think about over the weekend -- New Scientist has an article (sent to us by quite a few readers -- thanks!) about how we perceive our virtual selves in video games like World of Warcraft. A group of scientists at Dartmouth University hooked a few WoW players up to an MRI recently, and they found that when asked to describe themselves and their virtual avatars, the same areas of the brain activated -- areas normally suited to "self-reflection and judgement." In other words, you think about your avatar the same way you think about yourself. They found nearly no difference in the way the brain activated when subjects considered themselves and their avatars.
But when you make the split between virtual and real worlds (including your friends in both), the brain's center for imagination tends to light up whenever you consider the virtual world. You've got the normal parts of your brain working when thinking about yourself or others, but when you add in the virtual component, the imagination center lights up as well.