Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mirror mirror on the wall... changing our form to change ourselves?

Swedish researchers presented evidence that the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own.

"You can see the possibilities, putting a male in a female body, young in old, white in black and vice versa."
In today's Science Times Benedict Carey reports on soon to be published research which suggests that people will not only be convinced that they have temporarily assumed a new physical form, but that this experience can alter behavior - making people "less anxious about racial differences," when they assume another skin color, convincing people to exercise more after seeing themselves as someone more fit, or giving people extra confidence when they felt they had become more good-looking. Many psychotherapies work with techniques that help people get outside their own perspective into another's - transforming marriages in some cases, or getting criminals to view the world from the point of view of their victims. I can see the temptation to create some great science fiction with this idea, but the leap to claims of lasting behavioral benefits seems far fetched to me if we are talking about a single instance of experiencing an optical illusion. This article does not specify the amount of time subjects spent either as realistic film versions of others in one study, or as more conventional computer avatars in another.

Very often, those of us who study the human mind and brain create studies imagining we are manipulating behavior in a certain way. But we have to be cautious about believing we are actually having that effect. I can imagine from reading this article that I might be able to change a man's experience of himself to believing he has the body of a woman. Perhaps I tried it on myself and it made me feel more tender. Does that immediately make another man more tender or more sympathetic toward women too? Toward all women or only the sweet young thing I turned him into? Perhaps instead of spending the session becoming more sympathetic, what he will really discover is what it is like to have breasts. Just because we can manipulate an avatar doesn't mean we can instantly leap to controlling behavior. Does this also mean that writers and actors - those who have practice assuming the character or psychology of others - are more healthy, have greater sympathy for others? Do they have better relationships or are they more easy to manipulate through certain kinds of therapy? Maybe we can change the image of the actor to those people in our society with the most stable family lives, or change all writers into instant teetotalers. I'm being facetious, of course. I have known many actors who exercise a lot of empathy in their decision making (perhaps even romantically so). I have also found some of them to exercise an extraordinary amount of self-centeredness. Finally, we do have to inhabit ourselves in a multitude of complex and changing contexts. So it makes me wonder about whether, if these illusions are as useful as the tone of this intriguing story suggests, we and our therapists would have any less work integrating our new behavior with the rest of our old selves or our families. Changing behavior is a tricky business and it sounds to me like this sort of research is in its infancy. The notion, however, is tantalizing - check out the article and see what you think.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Very interesting and relevant to me right now. My dad has been using a mirror to reflect his one arm and it supposedly helps with the terrible phantom pain. The brain "sees" the reflected arm and goes, "Oh, there has been no amputation - there are two arms before me - ... I can relax ..." Apparently Iraq vets who have lost limbs have been using this mirror technique too - with wondrous results - the phantom pain is persistent and terrible. The OTHER pain, of the regular wound, is sharp - but manageable ... unlike the phantom which never stops and is even more terrible because of the whole psychology of it. You know that the pain is not REAL but God it hurts anyway. I am hopeful that the reflection theory will work, at least with my dad.

Ted said...

Yes, it's remarkable - the reflected image suggests to the brain that the arm is ok. Sometimes the pain is caused by tremendous tension in the muscles that remain but there's no hand and arm to relax, so the person can't get rid of it. It's interesting to know, though, that the feelings coming "from" missing limbs aren't entirely phantom. Other body parts take over the cortical space in the brain reserved for the arm, I was reading about this just last night and wondering how it affected your dad.