Body Swapping

Do psychotherapists now have a new trick? Or is it all smoke and mirrors? The New York Times reports today on Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real, where neuroscientists have shown that “the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own.”

The article “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping” by the Swedish researchers Henrik Ehrsson and Valeria Petkova appears this week in PLoS ONE, and is ably summarized over at Neurophilosophy. You can also read Ehrsson’s previous article on the virtual arm illusion and his Science piece on the experimental induction of out-of-body experiences.
The approach in all of this research is rather simple. You can see the out-of-body experiment design pictured to the right. Body swapping adds another person with goggles.

A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body. To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other’s hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and “feel” the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete.

This “switching” happens because the brain is literally embodied – after growing up with this particular body, it’s a fair assumption to assume that one’s eyes and one’s hand are getting feedback about the same interactive phenomenon. For a first-person view of this, see Karl Ritter’s AP article today on the body-swap illusion, which includes this photo of the two-goggle set-up.

Ehrsson is excited about being able to trick the brain in this way: “You can see the possibilities, putting a male in a female body, young in old, white in black and vice versa.” The NY Times article pushes the uses body swapping can have in therapy.

Couples who fight, self-centered adolescents, people who prey on others like rapists, all could take on the perspective of another body. Seeing “the encounters in their daily life from others’ point of view” can help prompt change. Kristene Doyle, head of clinical services at Albert Ellis Institute, says, “This is especially true for adolescents, who are so self-involved, and also for people who come in with anger problems and are more interested in changing everyone else in their life than themselves.”

But will this really work? As Ehrsson notes at the end of the report, the sensations are strange. Strange sensations are not quite therapeutic change. Part of the work to be done will be through virtual reality. Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have studied the Proteus Effect (pdf) or “transformed digital self representation.” People can get morphed in physical attractivess, weight, age and gender, and the effects of the experimental linger into the real world. Suddenly old people start contributing more to retirement (see pdf). Those with a fit image exercise more.

Still, producing identification with others is a difficult task. It’s not just about perception. So even virtual reality and body swapping will have its limits. But over time it might even be able to help with problems like autism. Jessica and Robert Hobson have proposed identification as a crucial component to intersubjective engagement, arguing in this 2007 paper that “the propensity to adopt the bodily anchored psychological stance of another person is essential to certain forms of joint attention and imitation, and that a weak tendency to identify with others is pivotal for the developmental psychopathology of autism.”

Rachel Brezis, who presented at our Encultured Brain panel, takes this sort of research a step further, linking it back to what Ehrsson does – the identification is also about the self and not just others. This move brings us to disorders like anorexia where body image also plays a role. And that brings us to gender, relationships and culture, explored so well in Caroline Knapp’s book Appetites.

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