SCIENCE

Scientists Trick People Into Thinking They're Invisible, And Make Them Feel Less Anxious

04/26/2015 09:16 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Staffan Larsson/Karolinska Institutet

If you want to ease your stage fright, take a few deep breaths and imagine the audience in their underwear. But if that doesn't work, here's another trick to try -- go invisible.

That's right. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden gave people the illusion that their entire bodies had disappeared -- which in turn dramatically reduced their social anxiety.

Smoke and mirrors. For the study, the researchers fitted 125 men and women with virtual reality headsets. In the headsets, the participants were shown live video from a pair of cameras pointed at the floor -- so that when they looked down, they saw empty space where their bodies should have been.

Then, the researchers jabbed the participants with a big paintbrush, while poking corresponding spots in the empty space on which the cameras were trained at the same time (see photo above) -- giving the that the participants were invisible.

“Within less than a minute, the majority of the participants started to transfer the sensation of touch to the portion of empty space where they saw the paintbrush move and experienced an invisible body in that position,” Arvid Guterstam, a PhD student at the Institute and the study's lead author, said in a written statement.

To confirm that the illusion had worked, the researchers replaced the virtual paintbrush with a knife -- and found that the participants got sweaty, which suggested they actually felt threatened.

Stage fright cure? In the study's next phase, the researchers made participants stand in front of a "stern-looking crowd" while measuring their heart rates, and asked them how stressed they felt. Half of the participants perceived themselves as having an invisible body in their headsets, and half were shown a mannequin body in their headsets.

What happened? The "invisible" people had lower heart rates and reported feeling less anxious in comparison to the embodied people.

"Having an invisible body seems to have a stress-reducing effect when experiencing socially challenging situations," Guterstam told Live Science.

See no evil... In the future, the researchers plan to use brain imaging to study what's happening when this illusion occurs, and to see whether it affects a person's moral compass -- which may be important as the military develops "invisibility cloaks" for soldiers, The Washington Post reported.

After all, in 360 B.C., Plato raised the ethical question over whether humans are innately just, or act morally as a means to an end. In the philosopher's thought experiment in The Republic, a shepherd named Gyges finds a ring that turns him invisible. Soon after, Gyges sneaks into his kingdom's royal palace, seduces the queen and finally murders the king. Thus, Plato concluded:

"No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men."

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