Experiments by researchers at the Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden show that it is possible to rather easily trick the mind’s sense of self into leaving the body. Given visual cues and physical sensations of the right timing your brain will ‘teleport’ what you experience as ‘you’ into space, into a complete stranger or even into a mannequin. This can be done with the whole body or just parts. This convincing illusion of teleportation happens while subjects are fully awake.
Knowing this, can we now explain thousands of years of writings about experiences of “astral projection” and out-of-body experiences as real illusions? It seems anyone’s brain will do this in a few minutes given the right misleading visual and physical cues.
In the new study from the Karolinska Institutet, neuroscientists created an out-of-body illusion while participants were in an MRI brain scanner. The researchers discovered that the sensation of being inside your own body isn’t as hardwired as you’d expect.
The Swedish researchers created an illusion that teleported the perceptions of each participant to different locations within a room. This study builds on previous research (link is external) in which the scientists tricked participant’s brains into believing that they’d been teleported into the body of another person or a mannequin.
For this study, the researchers created an out-of-body illusion in fifteen healthy participants while inside a brain scanner. In the experiment, the participants wore head-mounted video display screens and viewed themselves and the brain scanner from another part of the room.
The sense of owning one’s body and being located somewhere in space is so fundamental to our sense of self that we usually take it for granted. However, creating an accurate sense of self is a complex task. Proprioception requires the continuous integration of information from all of your senses to maintain an accurate sense of where your body is located in space and in relation to the people around you.
From the new visual perspective in the experiment, each participant observed the body of a stranger in the foreground while his or her own physical body was visible in the background. To create the illusion of being teleported, the scientists touched the participant’s body with an object in synchrony with identical touches being delivered to the stranger’s body while the participant viewed the live-action through a virtual reality headset.
“In a matter of seconds, the brain merges the sensation of touch and visual input from the new perspective, resulting in the illusion of owning the stranger’s body and being located in that body’s position in the room, outside the participant’s physical body,” lead author of the study, Arvid Guterstam, said in a press release.
The team at the Karolinska Institutet have mastered the art and science of studying how our sense of self can be be manipulated simply by creating illusions that subvert our everyday relationship to reality in positive and negative ways.
The out-of-body illusions created in the laboratory confirm that our sense of self is malleable and that our ability to empathize with another person’s pain and suffering occurs at a neurobiological level.
– Psychology Today, 2015
Here’s a bit more detail.
The feeling of being inside one’s own body is not as self-evident as one might think. In a new study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, neuroscientists created an out-of-body illusion in participants placed inside a brain scanner. They then used the illusion to perceptually ‘teleport’ the participants to different locations in a room and show that the perceived location of the bodily self can be decoded from activity patterns in specific brain regions.
The sense of owning one’s body and being located somewhere in space is so fundamental that we usually take it for granted. To the brain, however, this is an enormously complex task that requires continuous integration of information from our different senses in order to maintain an accurate sense of where the body is located with respect to the external world. Studies in rats have shown that specific regions of the brain contain GPS-like ‘place cells’ that signal the rat’s position in the room – a discovery that was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. To date, however, it remains unknown how the human brain shapes our perceptual experience of being a body somewhere in space, and whether the regions that have been identified in rats are involved in this process.
In a new study, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, the scientists created an out-of-body illusion in fifteen healthy participants placed inside a brain scanner. In the experiment, the participants wore head-mounted displays and viewed themselves and the brain scanner from another part of the room. From the new visual perspective, the participant observes the body of a stranger in the foreground while their physical body is visible in the background, protruding from the bore of the brain scanner. To elicit the illusion, the scientist touches the participant’s body with an object in synchrony with identical touches being delivered to the stranger’s body, in full view of the participant.
“In a matter of seconds, the brain merges the sensation of touch and visual input from the new perspective, resulting in the illusion of owning the stranger’s body and being located in that body’s position in the room, outside the participant’s physical body,” says Arvid Guterstam, lead author of the present study.
Different places in the scanner room
In the most important part of the study, the scientists used the out-of-body illusion to perceptually ‘teleport’ the participants between different places in the scanner room. They then employed pattern recognition techniques to analyze the brain activity and show that the perceived self-location can be decoded from activity patterns in specific areas in the temporal and parietal lobes. Furthermore, the scientists could demonstrate a systematic relationship between the information content in these patterns and the participants’ perceived vividness of the illusion of being located in a specific out-of-body position.
One thing everyone should get around to doing in this lifetime is answer this deviously simple question:
“What am I?”
The answer, from the perspective of neurobiology, may that you are the result of your brain dynamically building, as best it can, a mental model that integrates input from your many senses, emotions, memories and thoughts. You are an active process of integration. This process can be tricked, resulting sometimes in weird experiences.
I’m hoping this research increases the possibility of soothly transferring consciousness into a computer at some point. Which begs the question… What if this illusion is resting on top of another illusion? How do you really know that this consciousness transfer has not already been done? Perhaps you are “a brain in a vat,” living an entirely imaginary existence.
What experiments could you do to disprove a world of pure imagination?
How much control of the dream reality does the dreamer get? That depends on how the programmers set it up.