Body-swapping, body swapping

Body-Swapping Research Alters Thinking About Self-Image

December 03, 2008 01:59 PM
by Josh Katz
A new experiment indicates that people can strongly associate with another human body; “body-swapping” could have implications for psychiatric research.

Study Explores Illusion of Body-Swapping

Movies like "Freaky Friday" and "All of Me" have played off the idea of body-swapping, as LiveScience notes. A study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE on Tuesday turned that idea into reality.

Valeria Petkova and Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm used cameras to give volunteers the sensation that they were seeing through the eyes of a mannequin. For example, when the experimenter touched the stomach of the volunteer and the mannequin at the same time, the volunteer “saw the poking happen as if he or she were the mannequin.” Also, when the researchers slid a knife above the mannequin’s arm, the volunteers had “a physiological indication of heightened emotion”; they had no such reaction when the knife was passed over their own arms, Science News reports.

In another test, the volunteer, tricked to believe that he was the experimenter, shook hands with the experimenter. Because of the illusion, the subject found that he was shaking his own hand.

“This effect is so robust that, while experiencing being in another person’s body, a participant can face his or her biological body and shake hands with it without breaking the illusion,” the authors of the study wrote, according to Reuters. By the end of the experiment, “it was evident that the participants had felt the mannequin’s body to be their own body.”

In the experiment, physical appearances made no difference—a person could associate with a body of a difference race or sex. But humans could not swap bodies with nonhuman objects, like chairs or boxes. 

The experiment expanded on prior research involving single-limb swapping. Ehrsson’s earlier “rubber hand illusion” had a volunteer lay his arm on a table. The person’s hand was hidden and was ostensibly replaced by a rubber hand. The researcher touches the rubber hand with a brush, and the volunteer eventually feels the sensation of the brush, according to Science News.

The research gleaned more insight about the concept known as embodiment—“how we come to feel like we are located inside our bodies”—according to LiveScience, and it appears to contradict previous notions that embodiment is “sort of an inductive process of combining signals from muscles, joints and skin.”
The researchers hope that their work can someday be used to help people with psychiatric disorders, particularly those involving body image, such as anorexia. Science News also indicates that the “phenomenon might also be tapped to enhance user control over virtual reality applications and to prompt a person’s sense of really being part of a virtual world.”

Therapists often use similar “body swapping” techniques with their patients. Marriage counselors teach couples to role-play, so they can learn their spouses’ point of view. Psychologists have criminals like rapists imagine themselves as their victims, The New York Times writes.

But at the same time, body swapping could be harmful for people with certain mental illnesses: “People suffering from the delusions of schizophrenia or the grandiose mania of bipolar disorder are not likely to benefit from more disorientation, no matter the intent,” according to the Times.

Related Topic: When ‘Second Life’ becomes real life

Studies have indicated that the personality of a person’s Second Life character may bleed into that player’s real life. If someone has an online persona, or avatar, that is more attractive than they are, not only might that person act more extroverted than normal when playing online, but that extroversion may carry over to real life. In one study, individuals acted more confidently and aggressively if they had just played with a tall avatar, even if they were not tall in reality.

Reference: The published experiment


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