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Synchronized virtual reality heartbeat triggers out-of-body experiences

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August 25, 2013

New research demonstrates that it could be easy to trick the mind and trigger an out-of-bo...

New research demonstrates that it could be easy to trick the mind and trigger an out-of-body experience (Image: Shutterstock)

New research demonstrates that triggering an out-of-body experience (OBE) could be as simple as getting a person to watch a video of themselves with their heartbeat projected onto it. According to the study, it's easy to trick the mind into thinking it belongs to an external body and manipulate a person's self-consciousness by externalizing the body's internal rhythms. The findings could lead to new treatments for people with perceptual disorders such as anorexia and could also help dieters too.

In a typical out-of-body experience a person either experiences a feeling of floating outside of their body or of viewing it from outside of themselves. Most of us don't experience OBE's because our brains are constantly filtering information from all our senses to help us identify what we are and what we aren't.

For instance we know that our reflection isn't actually part of us. However the processes that give us the feeling of being in our bodies can be disrupted either naturally (seizures) or artificially (feeding the brain conflicting sensory inputs). For example, in the well known "rubber hand" illusion, a person begins to identify more with a rubber hand when someone strokes it in front of them, while stroking their real hand out of sight.

It's possible to expand this feeling to include the whole body as demonstrated in experiments that get a person to identify more with a virtual double than their own body by using virtual reality goggles. However, all of these experiments rely on manipulating external senses such as vision and touch.

Not much is known about how information from our internal organs contributes to bodily self-consciousness and whether they can be manipulated to induce an OBE. That's the question Dr Jane Aspell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University, UK and Lukas Heydrich, Phd Student, Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, set out to answer.

"If you think about your body, you have several sources of information about it: you can see your hands and legs, you can feel the seat you're sitting on via vision, you know you are standing upright thanks to your sense of balance etc," Aspell tells Gizmag. "There is also a vast number of signals being sent to your brain from inside of your body every second that you are alive: about your heartbeat, your blood pressure, how full your stomach is, what electrolytes are in your blood, how fast you are breathing.

"There is a huge amount of diverse information being sent to your brain about your body and yet what you perceive is not these medley of signals but just you – a single body, a single self. These pieces of information about the external and internal states of your body must be integrated or merged to generate this unity. This is what we are now beginning to study for the first time."

Aspell and Heydrich decided to find out whether a person's bodily self-consciousness could be influenced by visually representing one of its vital inner rhythms – the pulsing heartbeat. They attached 17 participants to electrocardiogram sensors and had them view videos of their bodies through virtual reality goggles so that their body appeared to be two meters (6.5 ft) in front of them.

Participants saw their own heartbeats visually imposed on their virtual doubles in the form of a flashing outline around the body that pulsed in sync. After a couple of minutes, many of the participants reported sensations of being in an entirely different part of the room rather than their physical body and feeling that their "selves" were closer to their virtual doubles.

According to the team, this is the first study that clearly shows how visual signals containing information about the body's internal organs (in this case, the heartbeat) can change their perception of themselves. "It confirms that the brain is able to integrate visual information with cardiac information," says Aspell. "It seems that the brain is very sensitive to patterns in the world which may relate to self – when the flashing was synchronous with the heartbeat this caused changes to subjects' self-perception."

The research could help people with distorted views of themselves to connect with their actual physical appearance. "Patients with anorexia seem to identify with a body which is larger than their physical body," Aspell tells us. "We could use this manipulation to help patients with anorexia to identify with their actual physical self."

Aspell is currently studying "yo-yo" dieters and says she plans to continue investigating "how the internal body shapes who we are." The Swiss National Science Foundation and the Fondation Bertarelli supported the study which is slated for publication in the APS journal Psychological Science.

The experiment can be seen in the video below

Source: Association for Psychological Science

About the Author
Lakshmi Sandhana When Lakshmi first encountered pig's wings in a petri dish, she realized that writing about scientists and imagineers was the perfect way to live in an expanding mind bubble. Articles for Wired, BBC Online, New Scientist, The Economist and Fast Company soon followed. She's currently pursuing her dream of traveling from country to country to not only ferret out cool stories but also indulge outrageously in local street foods. When not working, you'll find her either buried nose deep in a fantasy novel or trying her hand at improvisational comedy.   All articles by Lakshmi Sandhana
8 Comments

Time to go make a module for the Oculus Rift...

Onihikage
25th August, 2013 @ 08:41 pm PDT

If their real bodies had their arms pinched, would the sensation of pain feel different? Would an out of body experience lead to a different perception of reality.

If a patient were in this setup long enough, could you stop the real heart if the virtual one stopped? What is the mechanism that would snap them out of it if at all to prevent death?

Nairda
25th August, 2013 @ 10:18 pm PDT

See the Monroe Institute for verified OBE's. It is not just tricking the brain.

http://www.monroeinstitute.org/

Or search Monroe Institute on YouTube.

GaryP
26th August, 2013 @ 09:59 am PDT

One experiment concerning OBE that I read about a long time ago demonstrated a subject's ability to inform the experimenters what was hidden on the top of a cupboard in the room where the experiment took place. I wish I could remember the specific details. Perhaps someone reading this knows the specific details. If valid, then the person can be said to have had a genuine OBE, not a simulated one that is the center of this report.

Mel Tisdale
26th August, 2013 @ 10:20 am PDT

I like the pain question. If it is diminished or eliminated, it could help someone with nerve damage or other severe pain scenarios.

Dan Linder
26th August, 2013 @ 10:22 am PDT

Unfortunately the included video has no narration.

I am curious to know if the person identifies with the asynchronous self image or the synchronous "other object". I wonder what would happen if you applied the synchronous blinking to the image of another person? Two people, seeing their own heart beats superimposed on each other?

Bob Ehresman
26th August, 2013 @ 10:32 am PDT

Or people could just start practicing meditation such as a Neti Neti Meditation. That was my the first time I had a glimpse of my true self.

Mark Wolf
26th August, 2013 @ 12:10 pm PDT

OCULUS RIFT!!!!

Let's Rift it and find out. Get it goin!!!!

Nopers
28th August, 2013 @ 08:23 am PDT
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