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Surprising Science

Device Simulates Invisibility to Calm Social Anxiety

Many authors have dwelled on the benefits and possible pitfalls of invisibility on the human mind. Researchers focused more on the former, finding fear of public speaking lessens when people feel they are invisible.

Many great authors and thinkers have dwelled on the effects invisibility would have on a person, from Plato’s Republic to H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Now, science has put these literary questions to the test. No, we haven’t developed an invisibility cloak… yet. But Arvid Guterstam and his team of researchers outline an interesting experiment in the journal Scientific Reports where they simulate invisibility on a group of participants.

The simulation goes something like this: The participant wears a head-mounted display (a la the Oculus Rift). The participant is then asked to look down at his or her body, but rather than seeing themselves, they see only the carpet on the floor. What’s more, researchers were even able to simulate touching. They did so by poking the participants with a paintbrush and mirroring their movements while holding a paintbrush in their other hand in front of a camera pointed at empty space.

Guterstam added in a press release:

“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.”

The researchers conducted this and other experiments on a total of 125 participants. In one scenario, the researchers examined the participants’ sweat response to seeing a knife floating toward them in that empty space. The participant’s sweat accumulation was, indeed, elevated while experiencing the illusion. In another experiment, researchers also looked at how invisibility would contribute to helping alleviate social anxiety. The researchers placed participants in front of a crowded room while inducing the “invisibility illusion.”

Guterstam reported:

“We found that their heart rate and self-reported stress level during the ‘performance’ was lower when they immediately prior had experienced the invisible body illusion compared to when they experienced having a physical body. These results are interesting because they show that the perceived physical quality of the body can change the way our brain processes social cues.”

While scientists are still working on developing invisibility technology, those of us who fear public speaking may take comfort in knowing that even after 20 years of acting, Edward Norton still feels anxious, waiting for someone to call him out as a fraud. His advice:

Read more at EurekAlert!.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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