Arvid Guterstam is the first PhD student and medical doctor who managed to pull off the very first convincing illusion that you’re invisible with the help of virtual reality. However, he warns that it might be all in good fun, but also gives you the heebie-jeebies with the eerie sensation that you’re no longer visible.
While wearing the headset, you’re looking down, and there’s nothing there – don’t be mistaken though. You feel your solid body, it’s not like you have disappeared into thin air. Using a paint brush during the experiment, Guterstam reported he even felt it tickle his “invisible” belly, even though his eyes were telling him otherwise.
After testing the virtual reality on himself, Guterstam moved on testing it on 125 other people and publishing the results in the Scientific Reports. According to his paper, 7 out of 10 people also felt the illusion, claiming that it was so realistic that it made them physically react as if people are not able to see them.
Guterstam expressed his interest in the fact that one day humans might actually invent cloaking devices that will make them invisible. He is even more interested in people’s moral reaction to actually being invisible. If people would know they can’t get caught, that invisibility would protect and hide them, would we eventually lose our sense of what’s right and wrong?
Scientific out-of-body experiences
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. So far, Guterstam has tried to offer an artificial sense of complete invisibility so as to catch a glimpse of how people react to being transparent. He works with a team of colleagues in a laboratory at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden – and he’s not a novice in creating body-changing illusions.
So far, he’s been making people feel like they have an outer body experience, that they’ve shrunk to the doll-size or even that they have grown an extra limb! Next step was convincing people they have an invisible hand – and that worked smoothly.
But when the whole body was going to be involved in the illusion, Guterstam felt like he was really stretching the limits of strangeness in this kind of deceptive thinking. So he did it – he showed people who wore the virtual reality headset a view of nothing, from head height.
While wearing the headset, a scientist would simultaneously touch you and the nothingness (the view showing up on your display) with a brush. So even if you felt the brush, your brain would interpret the image as if your body is nothing.
The scientist could even get people’s heart rates up by getting a knife close to the invisible belly – sweat, adrenaline and all – getting them to react with the classic fight or flight response. Same reactions could be monitored if the subject was put in front of a virtual unwelcoming audience with people staring at them.
However, for subject who actually felt the illusion happening, the physical responses were rather different. Their brains were so convinced they could not be seen by the frowning audience that their bodies were not given the stress-response command. If the people can’t see you, there’s no reason to break into a sweat over it or feel uncomfortable.
Applications of tricking the brain
The reason why the illusion works on so many people is because, as the team learned, the out-of-body experience is so easily faked. We are not deadest on being locked in our bodies, and our perception of our own self can be easily manipulated, making us feel as if we’re floating free.
It seems that our brains are constantly monitoring our senses and draws its body sense coordinates moment by moment. It basically reacts to what our senses tells it about our position in space, and puts the “me” tag on it, second after second. When you trick the senses, you trick the brain into putting the “me” on a fake location.
Whenever the scientist could create a difference between the place where you “see” that you’re being touched and the place where you actually feel the touch, they can achieve the complete illusion.
One of the most important applications for this fun experiment is providing better prosthetic devices for amputees. Guterstam’s team is working on ways of harnessing the self-sense in order to make a prosthetic arm, for example, feel more real and more attached to the body.
Beyond this very practical function for Guterstam’s experiment, there’s the dream as old as time of actually achieving invisibility – bringing its difficult moral dilemmas. But that is so far in the future that we shouldn’t fix too much on it – science has barely made a goldfish disappear by using a fixed cloaking device, and it was only invisible when looked at from the right angles.
Guterstam’s ambitions resurfaced The Question – what would you choose between flight and invisibility, if you could have a superpower? Psychologists believe the answer can reveal something about a person – mostly because invisibility is believed to be the superpower of perverts and thieves. But deep down, aren’t we all?
Image Source: WIRED
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