Have you ever just wanted to vanish in a stressful situation or become invisible in an awkward social situation? In a study published today, Swedish scientists used virtual reality systems to convince test subjects that they were invisible. The study authors discovered that the subjects showed reduced “autonomic and subjective social anxiety responses.” The full title of this study is “Illusory ownership of an invisible body reduces autonomic and subjective social anxiety responses.”
The study recruited about 125 participants for four experiments. No participant took part in more than one of the experiments. The subjects wore a head mounted display that covered their eyes and provided a simulated view based upon the direction they looked. The view was provided by staff using 3-D software and cameras focused upon an empty space.
The data resulted in several conclusions. The authors found that many participants would alter their own perceptions of their body from solid towards invisible based upon the experiments. In addition, the feeling of invisibility reduced levels of social anxiety in stressful social situation for participants.
The authors suggest that incorporation of virtual reality invisibility may be of use in the treatment of social anxiety. They note that cognitive-behavioral therapy, in particular, virtual reality exposure therapy, had been found to have a significant benefit in the treatment of this condition. The authors suggest that beginning such therapy with this sort of invisibility and gradually increasing the solidity of the patient’s perceived body may be of great utility.
The study authors make the point that the experiences that their experiments induced were not related to the “phantom limb” experience that many amputees have. Nor is it related to “asomatognosia”, a condition where the patient loses any sense or awareness of their body. They point to rare “whole-body phantoms” as the nearest real world comparison to the results experienced by test subject during their experiments.
The Washington Post interviewed doctoral student Arvid Guterstam, the study’s lead author, who described the basic results.
Considering that you’re born with a sense of your body, and have a life long experience of that, it’s quite astonishing that in a matter of 10 seconds the brain can be tricked into thinking you’re invisible.
The study also notes that its findings may have implications in other real world situation. Advances in physics are bringing invisibility closer to reality, with moral and ethical implications. In Sept. 2014, the University of Rochester announced the creation of a “cloaking device” using commonly available lenses.
It is the first device “that can do three-dimensional, continuously multidirectional cloaking.” Other attempts would only cloak when the object is viewed straight on. Any movement, side to side, would reveal the cloaked object. The University of Rochester device cloaks the object completely.
The ability to fade out of a tense or uncomfortable situation is a long way away. For those patients who suffer the very real torments of social anxiety, though, invisibility may become the first step in treatment. Everyone can ponder, as well, the effects that cloaking or invisibility may have on society and privacy if progress continues to be made in real world applications.