The concept and application of virtual reality isn’t new. But, the technology behind it has come a long way. Anyone who has used an Oculus Rift knows how much it can mess with your brain. Try riding a virtual roller coaster and not getting queasy.
Researchers in Sweden took it a step further. Making your brain think it is invisible.
125 participants wore virtual reality headsets. When they looked down at their bodies, they saw nothing. Researchers then poked their chests and the blank space with a paint brush. Feeling the paint brush hit their chest and seeing it through virtual reality was enough for most participants to believe the invisible illusion.
“Within less than a minute, the majority of the participants started to transfer the sensation of touch to the portion of empty space where they saw the paintbrush move and experienced an invisible body in that position,” said Arvid Guterstam, lead author of the present study, in a statement. “We showed in a previous study that the same illusion can be created for a single hand. The present study demonstrates that the ‘invisible hand illusion’ can, surprisingly, be extended to an entire invisible body.”
Researchers then tested to see if the illusion worked by stabbing a knife toward the empty space. Participants’ sweat response rose when seeing the knife. This shows the brain interpreting a threat in an empty space as one directed at your body. The elevated response disappeared when the illusion was broken.
Researchers also tested the illusion to see how it may affect social anxiety by placing the participants in front of a group of strangers.
“We found that their heart rate and self-reported stress level during the ‘performance’ was lower when they immediately prior had experienced the invisible body illusion compared to when they experienced having a physical body,” said Guterstam. “These results are interesting because they show that the perceived physical quality of the body can change the way our brain processes social cues.”
What’s next? Researchers want to see follow-up studies that look at the impacts of feeling invisible and how it affects our moral compass. These studies will help “ensure that future invisibility cloaking does not make us lose our sense of right and wrong, which Plato asserted over two millennia ago,” according to principal investigator Dr. Henrik Ehrsson.
“This issue is becoming increasingly relevant today because of the emerging prospect of invisibility cloaking of an entire human body being made possible by modern materials science,” the researchers write in their study.
The prospect of using virtual reality as therapy for social anxiety is an interesting one. I could see people overcoming their fear of public speaking with a little dose of virtual reality.
The moral questions are also interesting. If you were invisible, would you do things you normally wouldn’t? We would all think about hitting the bank vault, but would we? Of course, we would. Wall Street has plenty of money. I would hit the Federal Reserve and get my bailout.