An out-of-body experience can be created by a visual projection of the human heartbeat, a new study by researchers in the UK and Switzerland says.
The study demonstrates that information about the internal state of the body, in this case, the heartbeat, can be used to change how people experience their own body and self.
Volunteers were fitted with a head mounted display which functioned as “virtual reality goggles.” Study participants were filmed by a video camera connected to the virtual reality goggles, allowing them to view their own body as if standing two meters in front of them.
At the same time, the volunteers’ heartbeat signals were recorded using electrodes. Timing of the heartbeat was used to trigger a bright flashing outline which was superimposed on the virtual body shown in the virtual reality goggles.
Perception of Virtual Reality
The subjects, after several minutes of watching the outline flash on and off in sync with the heartbeat, felt a stronger identification with the virtual body, reporting that it felt more like their own body. They also experienced being at a different location in the room than their physical body, saying they felt closer to their double than they actually were, and they perceived touch at a different location to their physical body.
“This research demonstrates that the experience of one’s self can be altered when presented with information about the internal state of one’s body, such as a heartbeat,”
“This is compatible with the theory that the brain generates our experience of self by merging information about our body from multiple sources, including the eyes, the skin, the ears, and even one’s internal organs.”
Aspell hopes that the research might someday help people suffering with self-perception problems, including anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. Currently she is working on a study about “yo-yo dieters” and how their self-perception changes as they gain and lose weight.
Reconnecting Body Disconnections
“Patients with anorexia, for example, have a disconnection from their own body,” Aspell added. “They look in the mirror and think they are larger than they actually are. This may be because their brain does not update its representation of the body after losing weight, and the patient is therefore stuck with a perception of a larger self that is out of date.”
Aspell concludes that “this experiment could be adapted to help people ‘reconnect’ with their current physical appearance. It could help them realize what the ‘real me’ actually looks like.”