Would You Believe Your Hand Could Turn into Marble?

Bielefeld neuroscientists present a new bodily illusion.

Our bodies are made of flesh and bones. We all know this, and throughout our daily lives, all our senses constantly provide converging information about this simple, factual truth. But is this always the case? A new study by Irene Senna from Bielefeld University’s Center of Excellence CITEC and her colleagues reports a surprising bodily illusion demonstrating how we can rapidly update our assumptions about the material qualities of our bodies based on recent multisensory perceptual experience. The study was published in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE on 13 March 2014.

To induce an illusory perception of the material properties of the hand, a group of neuroscientists from Bielefeld University, the Max-Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (Germany), and the University of Milano-Bicocca (Italy) asked volunteers to sit with their hands lying on a table in front of them. They repeatedly hit the participants’ right hands gently with a small hammer while replacing the natural sound of the hammer against the skin with the sound of a hammer hitting a piece of marble. Within minutes, hands started feeling stiffer, heavier, harder, less sensitive, and unnatural. Moreover, when approached by a threatening stimulus (a needle that the experimenter moved near their hands), participants showed an enhanced Galvanic skin response, thus demonstrating increased physiological arousal.

This image shows a hand coming out of a slab of marble.

As if one’s hand were made of marble: Bielefeld neuroscientists successfully deceive participants about their body perceptions. Credit Senna and Parise.

To perceive our bodies and the world around us, our brains constantly combine information from different senses with prior knowledge retrieved from memory. However, unlike most bodily properties that frequently change over time (such as posture and position), our body material never changes. Hence, in principle, it would be unnecessary for the brain to constantly try to infer it.

This novel bodily illusion, the ‘Marble-Hand Illusion’, demonstrates that the perceived material of our body, surely the most stable attribute of our bodily self, can quickly be updated through multisensory integration. What is more, it shows that even impact sounds of non-biological materials – such as marble and metal – can be attributed consistently to the body, as if its core material could indeed be modified. This surprising perceptual plasticity might help to explain why tools and prostheses can merge so easily into our body schemas despite being made of non-biological materials.

Notes about this neuroscience research

This multisensory perception study is part of the research being carried out at the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Faculty of Biology. The department is one of 40 research groups that are working at the Center of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC).

Contact: Dr. Cesare Parise – Bielefeld University
Source: Bielefeld University press release.
Image Source: The image is credited to Senna & Parise, and is adapted from the Bielefeld University press release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “The Marble-Hand Illusion” by Irene Senna, Angelo Maravita, Nadia Bolognini, and Cesare V. Parise in PLOS ONE. Published online March 12 2014 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091688

Neuroscience Abstract

The Marble-Hand Illusion

Our body is made of flesh and bones. We know it, and in our daily lives all the senses constantly provide converging information about this simple, factual truth. But is this always the case? Here we report a surprising bodily illusion demonstrating that humans rapidly update their assumptions about the material qualities of their body, based on their recent multisensory perceptual experience. To induce a misperception of the material properties of the hand, we repeatedly gently hit participants’ hand with a small hammer, while progressively replacing the natural sound of the hammer against the skin with the sound of a hammer hitting a piece of marble. After five minutes, the hand started feeling stiffer, heavier, harder, less sensitive, unnatural, and showed enhanced Galvanic skin response (GSR) to threatening stimuli. Notably, such a change in skin conductivity positively correlated with changes in perceived hand stiffness. Conversely, when hammer hits and impact sounds were temporally uncorrelated, participants did not spontaneously report any changes in the perceived properties of the hand, nor did they show any modulation in GSR. In two further experiments, we ruled out that mere audio-tactile synchrony is the causal factor triggering the illusion, further demonstrating the key role of material information conveyed by impact sounds in modulating the perceived material properties of the hand. This novel bodily illusion, the ‘Marble-Hand Illusion’, demonstrates that the perceived material of our body, surely the most stable attribute of our bodily self, can be quickly updated through multisensory integration.

Reference: “The Marble-Hand Illusion” by Irene Senna, Angelo Maravita, Nadia Bolognini, and Cesare V. Parise in PLOS ONE March 12 2014 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091688

Help share this neuroscience news
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive the latest neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email daily from NeuroscienceNews.com
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. We do not sell email addresses. You can cancel your subscription any time.
No more articles