Through The Eyes Of A Child by Eloise Aston, July 28th 2013
Image used under creative commons license
Can you remember what it was like to be four years old? You may not have to: scientists researching body-ownership and perception have found that using virtual reality to make adults feel their body is like a child’s causes a significant shift in their thoughts and attitudes, as well as their estimation of object sizes.
Our sensation of body ownership is surprisingly flexible: it’s not hard to fool your brain into thinking that an external limb, or even a whole body, is part of yours. This can be demonstrated by the famous ‘rubber hand illusion’, in which simultaneous stroking of your hand (which is hidden) and a fake hand (which you can see) creates the illusion that the stroking sensation you feel is actually coming from the fake hand – and the hand doesn’t have to be particularly ‘lifelike’; a rubber glove or joke shop hand does just as well.
In this experiment, the researchers were looking at how these types of body ownership and illusion affect perception and behaviour. They used immersive virtual reality to embody 30 adults in the body of a 4-year-old child and in a body of adult proportions scaled to the same size; movements of the subjects’ real bodies and the virtual bodies were synchronised to create and maintain the illusion of ownership.
They found that in the child body, compared to the ‘scaled adult’ body, participants rated the size of objects as significantly larger compared to their estimates when not experiencing either of the virtual bodies. Participants also completed a task where they had to respond as fast as possible to terms relating to ‘self’ and ‘other’; when ‘self’ terms were linked to ‘child’ images, participants were quicker to respond than when ‘self’ was linked to ‘adult’ images, and the opposite was true in the adult condition, where response times were quicker for self-adult pairings.
When the synchronous element was removed, so that the real and virtual body’s movements were no longer coordinated, the participants no longer felt like the body was their own and the effects disappeared.