The illusion of being in another body affects not only our perception (as is already known) but also our way of thinking. Thanks to virtual reality, some subjects embodied Sigmund Freud and proved better at giving themselves psychological advice compared to when they were simply themselves.
The volunteers participating in Sofia Adelaide Osimo’s experiments may have felt as if they were inside a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the author of “Being John Malkovich”. Just as the film characters catapulted themselves into the famous actor’s body, the subjects in Osimo’s experiment, after asking for advice on a personal psychological problem, replied to themselves embodying Sigmund Freud. “And when they embodied the Viennese psychoanalyst, their advice was much more effective than when they were plainly talking to themselves”, explains Osimo, a SISSA researcher, who carried out this work in collaboration with colleagues of the EVENT Lab of the University of Barcelona. Their research paper has just been published in Scientific Reports.
To create the illusion of being in someone else’s body,and perceiving it as our own, Osimo relied on “immersive virtual reality”. Previous studies have shown this type of illusion to cause changes in perception, but Osimo and colleagues wanted to verify whether embodiment could also affect thought processes: does being someone else make us think differently? Apparently it does.
In the experiment, the volunteers wore very sophisticated virtual reality devices (headset and sensors), and were immersed in a virtual room where there was a duplicate representation of themselves and Sigmund Freud. The subject could alternately be in the avatar body representing themselves or in Freud’s body. The movements of the avatars, in the experimental condition, were perfectly synchronized with the subject’s real movements, and this produced a powerful illusion of embodiment.
In the first phase of each session the subject was himself and described a psychological problem to Freud. Then he immediately “jumped” into Freud’s body and replied to himself by giving advice. The subject then returned to his own body to listen to Freud’s voice (which was the same as the subject’s but with a lower pitch so as not to cause confusion). The exchange could go on for as many turns as the subject wished.
In another experimental condition, Freud was not present and the subject asked and replied always embodying himself, similarly to when we talk to ourselves as we mull over a problem.
“The results are clear: giving oneself advice is always effective, but doing it as Sigmund Freud works better” explains Osimo. “The experiments contained a further control condition where the avatars’ movements were not synchronized with the subjects’ real movements. This considerably reduced, if not completely eliminated, the illusion of embodiment. In this condition the effect of the dialogue with oneself – or with Freud – was nullified, which further confirms that it is the illusion that modifies the thought process”.
Embodying someone whom we consider authoritative for some reason can therefore modify the processes we use to solve problems. And Freud, also in the light of Osimo and colleagues’ findings, is universally considered authoritative in psychological counselling. “Before proceeding with the experimental phase, we evaluated the psychoanalyst’s authoritativeness by means of questionnaires administered to a sample from the population from which the subjects selected for the experiments were drawn. Freud was not only found to be very authoritative and well-known, but his image proved also to be highly recognizable and prototypical”.
Conversations between self and self as Freud
“We have demonstrated for the first time that embodiment is also effective on high-level cognitive processes, such as problem solving and decision making”, concludes Osimo. “These findings also open up interesting scenarios on the front of psychological counselling: could virtual reality be used to this end some time in the future?”.
About this psychology research
Additional Information: This article was submitted to NeuroscienceNews.com by the SISSA press office.
Source:SISSA Image Source: The image is credited to EVENT lab, UB Video Source: The video is available at researcher, Mel Slater’s YouTube page Original Research: Full open access research for “Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling” by Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlang and Mel Slater in Scientific Reports. Published online September 10 2015 doi:10.1038/srep13899
Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling
When people see a life-sized virtual body (VB) from first person perspective in virtual reality they are likely to have the perceptual illusion that it is their body. Additionally such virtual embodiment can lead to changes in perception, implicit attitudes and behaviour based on attributes of the VB. To date the changes that have been studied are as a result of being embodied in a body representative of particular social groups (e.g., children and other race). In our experiment participants alternately switched between a VB closely resembling themselves where they described a personal problem, and a VB representing Dr Sigmund Freud, from which they offered themselves counselling. Here we show that when the counsellor resembles Freud participants improve their mood, compared to the counsellor being a self-representation. The improvement was greater when the Freud VB moved synchronously with the participant, compared to asynchronously. Synchronous VB movement was associated with a much stronger illusion of ownership over the Freud body. This suggests that this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to effect cognitive changes.
“Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling” by Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlang and Mel Slater in Scientific Reports. Published online September 10 2015 doi::10.1038/srep13899