A new study has found that channeling Sigmund Freud helped people work through their own personal psychological problems much more effectively.
Experiments conducted by Sofia Adelaide Osimo at the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy used immersive virtual reality to help volunteers channel the famous psychoanalyst.
In the experiment, volunteers wore sophisticated virtual reality (VR) devices, such as a headset and sensors, and were immersed in a virtual room where there was a duplicate representation of themselves and Sigmund Freud.
The person could alternately be in the avatar body representing themselves or in Freud’s body. The movements of the avatars, in the experimental condition, were perfectly synchronized with the person’s real movements, and this produced a powerful illusion of embodiment, according to Osimo.
In the first phase of each session the volunteer was himself and described a psychological problem to Freud. Then he immediately “jumped” into Freud’s body and replied to himself by giving advice.
The subject then returned to his own body to listen to Freud’s voice (which was the same as the subject’s but with a lower pitch so as not to cause confusion). The exchange could go on for as many turns as the volunteer wished.
In another experiment, Freud was not present and the volunteer asked for advice and replied, always embodying himself, similarly to when we talk to ourselves as we mull over a problem, Osimo explained.
“When they embodied the Viennese psychoanalyst, their advice was much more effective than when they were plainly talking to themselves,” said Osimo, a SISSA researcher who carried out the work in collaboration with colleagues of the EVENT Lab of the University of Barcelona.
“The results are clear,” she continued. “Giving oneself advice is always effective, but doing it as Sigmund Freud works better.”
The experiments contained one further control condition where the avatars’ movements were not synchronized with the volunteers’ real movements.
“This considerably reduced, if not completely eliminated, the illusion of embodiment,” she noted. “In this condition the effect of the dialogue with oneself — or with Freud — was nullified, which further confirms that it is the illusion that modifies the thought process.”
Embodying someone we consider authoritative can modify the processes we use to solve problems, the researcher concluded. And Freud is universally considered authoritative in psychological counseling.
“Before proceeding with the experimental phase, we evaluated the psychoanalyst’s authoritativeness by means of questionnaires administered to a sample from the population from which the subjects selected for the experiments were drawn,” Osimo said. “Freud was not only found to be very authoritative and well-known, but his image proved also to be highly recognizable and prototypical.”
“We have demonstrated for the first time that embodiment is also effective on high-level cognitive processes, such as problem solving and decision making,” Osimo said. “These findings also open up interesting scenarios on the front of psychological counseling — could virtual reality be used to this end some time in the future?”
The study was published in Scientific Reports.