Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Happens to People When They Think They're Invisible?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Happens to People When They Think They're Invisible?

Article excerpt

It's an experiment ripped straight from the pages of H.G. Wells.

Using a 3D virtual reality headset, neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm gave participants the sensation that they were invisible, and then examined the psychological effects of apparent invisibility.

It doesn't actually take much to make a person feel invisible. The scientists outfitted participants in 3D virtual reality headsets and asked them to look down, at where their bodies should be. But instead, the headsets projected an image of empty space. Then, the scientists stroked volunteers with a paintbrush. At the same time, in the headset display, the brush appeared to be stroking empty space. Almost immediately, the subjects began reporting feeling as though their bodies had become hollow or transparent.

"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 study. "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."

In fact, the illusion was so real that when researchers made a stabbing motion with a knife in empty space, participants showed elevated stress and sweat levels.

But perhaps more interesting was the effect invisibility appears to have on social anxiety.

In the study, the scientists sought to create a socially stressful situation by having the volunteers stand in front of an audience of "serious-looking" strangers. The participant who had first been rendered "invisible," reported lower stress levels and showed slower heart rates than their "visible" counterparts.

"These results are interesting because they show that the perceived physical quality of the body can change the way our brain processes social cues," says Dr. Guterstam

In other words, as Guterstam told Live Science, "Having an invisible body seems to have a stress-reducing effect when experiencing socially challenging situations,"

As such, invisibility may, in fact, have practical applications, such treating social anxiety disorders, he suggests. …

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