Many people have experienced the feeling of being invisible – in the metaphorical sense, at least. Maybe you’ve felt like your voice wasn’t being heard, or the object of your affection won’t notice you despite all attempts. Either way, it tends to increase anxiety. But what about being actually invisible? According to neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, an illusion that tricks subjects into thinking their bodies are invisible actually decreases anxiety.
The illusion is simple enough. Volunteers were fitted with a virtual reality headset, linked to a nearby downward-pointed camera. A researcher stood at arm’s length from the subject, with a paintbrush in each hand. With one hand, the researcher used the brush to gently stroke the subject’s midsection. With the other, they made a similar motion, only this time in view of the camera connected to the VR headset. Researchers also created an audience of “serious looking strangers” to watch the subjects.
The net result is that subjects could feel that they were being brushed, but their eyes told them their bodies were invisible thanks to the VR headset setup. What’s more, the researchers observed an unexpected effect: Even though the subjects knew, intellectually, that they weren’t actually invisible, they displayed reduced social anxiety in front of the “audience.” The observation was supported by heart rate monitor data.
The research follows on earlier studies relating to how we view our bodies and how we feel ownership of them. A study in 1998 showed that when subjects observed a rubber band being brushed at the same time their hands were brushed out of their field of view, they felt the rubber band was part of their body. The effect was even produced without a physical object.
The Stockholm researchers are interested in the illusion for the potential treatment of social anxiety disorder. The research could also help give doctors insight into phantom limb syndrome, which describes a phenomenon where an amputee feels sensations in a limb that’s no longer there. Of course, the idea of invisibility brings with it other challenges, namely moral ones.
Called the “Gyges effect” (so named for the character in Plato’s Republic who develops powers of invisibility), it describes a phenomenon where people will act immorally if they believe they won’t be seen or caught. In the Republic, Gyges used an invisibility ring to kill the king and seduce the queen. The researchers are interested to see how real people will react to the same sensation. If the internet is any indication, people have no qualms about behaving terribly when they feel they have anonymity.
“We are planning to expose participants to a number of moral dilemmas under the illusion that they are invisible,” says co-author Arvid Guterstam, “and compare their responses to a context in which they perceive having a normal physical body.”