Walking the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes just got significantly easier, thanks to the work of a group of Swedish neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Using virtual reality headsets with special camera goggles, the researchers were able to trick subjects’ brains into adopting “any other human form, no matter how different, as its own,” according to this article in the Health section of yesterday’s New York Times. The experience is so real, the scientists say, subjects will even “unconsciously cringe when [the adopted body] is poked or threatened”.
How can deceiving your brain be so simple? Benedict Carey, author of the Times article, explains:
In previous work, neuroscientists have induced various kinds of out-of-body experiences using similar techniques. The brain is so easily tricked, they say, precisely because it has spent a lifetime in its own body. It builds models of the world instantaneously, based on lived experience and using split-second assumptions — namely, that the eyes are attached to the skull.
Thanks to the brain’s easy acceptance of out-of-body avatars, the Swedish researchers’ work has many exciting potential applications for psychotherapy. As Carey points out,
…therapists often work to pull people out of themselves: to see their behavior from the perspective of a loved one, for example, or to observe their own thinking habits from a neutral distance.
Marriage counselors have couples role-play, each one taking the other spouse’s part. Psychologists have rapists and other criminals describe their crime from the point of view of the victim. Like novelists or moviemakers, their purpose is to transport people, mentally, into the mind of another.
Picture those troubled spouses in marriage counseling, not just imagining, but fully inhabiting the role of their partner. I will be eager to see the results of any studies looking at the clinical effectiveness of this new treatment modality; my hunch is that the added “realness” of the body-swapping experience will allow a patient to develop deeper, more genuine compassion for others than the old role-playing method.
Body swapping won’t work for everyone seeking therapy, of course. As Benedict Carey writes, “People suffering from the delusions of schizophrenia or the grandiose mania of bipolar disorder are not likely to benefit from more disorientation, no matter the intent.” Overall, however, these results are a fascinating new research development, one that many therapists are undoubtedly excited to add to their bag of tricks. Check out the full study, “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping”, here.