Body Swapping (Thanks, Technology!)

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.
~ John Naisbitt
The reason nobody likes you driving while you’re talking on your cell phone is that, in the speaking and even the planning to speak, you’re readily beset by “inattention blindness,” and the physical world, including the rush of oncoming cars and fixed objects, just feels less real than your virtual conversation. It’s not that safe. While many of us may tune out just as readily during a leaden conversation with someone we’re with, inattention blindness just doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem when your interlocutor is the passenger sitting right next to you. All but the least sensitive passengers see and mention the road, can take the lead in conversations, and pause when an especially demanding driving decision-point turns up. They also fall asleep next to you and let you drive in peace.

Setting aside for a moment your commitment to public safety, it’s possible for technology use to worsen yet your sense of what’s real, driving beyond where you think “real” is, to where you think “you” are. Recently, researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute figured out how to apply virtual reality technology to convince participants to perceive someone else’s body as being where their sense of “I” resided.

This is all it takes for to create a “body-transfer illusion”: A participant gets herself decked out with a camera, a pair of virtual reality goggles and a few electrodes, while her human (or mannequin) partner mounts a companion camera on his head. Through the manipulations of what they see through the goggles, participants actually begin to feel what they see and to “body swap.” Through various camera manipulations,

Andrew Ketterer Body Swapping with a Mannequin.
Andrew Ketterer Body Swapping with a  Mannequin

they may experience their partner moving to shake their hand as if they themselves were doing it, or see a stick touch their partner’s abdomen and believe it’s their own stomach that’s being touched. Lead Karolinska researcher Henrik Ehrsoon commented that the experiment “shows how easy it is to change the brain’s perception of the physical self. By manipulating sensory impressions, it’s possible to fool the self not only out of its body but into other bodies, too.” This technology application is so sophisticated in its ability to make us lose sense of our own bodily reality that seeing actually becomes (false) sensing.

Perceiving another's  body to be one's ownNot just Fun With Computers to take us farther and farther out of our bodily reality, these technologies may also help restore us to a sense of self within a living body. Karolinska health professors envision the opportunity to help limb amputees or stroke victims integrate their use of prosthetics through practice with virtual limbs. Another promising application may lie in the treatment of people who suffer with body-image disorders to use their perception of someone else’s body (where there is no problem) to correct their own distorted body image: others’ bodies seem more real in these cases even before the goggles are strapped on. (See “This is Not the Body I Ordered.”)

Technology may have the capacity to bring us back to our essential humanness as well as drive us out of it. It could even enhance our capacity for meaningful contact with others. What if urban kids experienced a rival group member’s body as if it were their own? Could this experience help re-sensitize kids overexposed to violence in their communities and the media, helping them feel — and through this, recognize — that any pain that happens to another happens to themselves as well?

In what ways have the technologies to which you’re currently attached enhanced your experience of being in a (your) body?