The real avatar: Researchers use virtual reality and brain imaging to hunt for the science of the self

Feb 17, 2011
Olaf Blanke conducts experiment to understand the way the brain represents the body by combining VR induced illusions and brain signal readings to better understand the cognitive basis for spatial representation. Credit: EPFL

That feeling of being in, and owning, your own body is a fundamental human experience. But where does it originate and how does it come to be? Now, Professor Olaf Blanke, a neurologist with the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL and the Department of Neurology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, announces an important step in decoding the phenomenon. By combining techniques from cognitive science with those of Virtual Reality (VR) and brain imaging, he and his team are narrowing in on the first experimental, data-driven approach to understanding self-consciousness.

In recent unpublished work, Blanke and his fellow researchers performed a series of studies in which they immersed subjects, via VR settings, into the body of an avatar, or virtual human. Each subject was fitted with an electrode-studded skullcap to monitor brain activity and exposed to different digital, 3D environments through a head-mounted stereoscopic visor or projections on a large screen.

Blanke and his colleagues then perturbed the most fundamental aspects of consciousness in their subjects, such as "Where am I localized in space" and "What is my body?" by physically touching their real-life volunteers either in or out of sync with the avatar. They even swapped perspectives from first to third person and put their male subjects inside female avatars, all the while measuring the change in . Use of electrical meant subjects could stand, move their heads, and (in the most recent experiments) walk with the VR on. Other techniques such as fMRI would have required them to remain still.

The team's results expand on clinical studies done in neurological patients reporting out-of-body experiences. And the data show marked changes in the response of the brain's temporo-parietal and frontal regions—the parts of the brain responsible for integrating touch and vision into a coherent perception -- compared to a series of control conditions.

"Traditional approaches have not been looking at the right information in order to understand the notion of the 'I' of conscious feeling and thinking," Blanke says. "Our research approaches the self first of all as the way the body is represented in the brain and how this affects the conscious mind. And this concept of the bodily self most likely came before more developed notions of 'I' in the evolutionary development of man."

A deeper understanding of the neurobiological basis for the self could lead to advances in the fields of touch and balance perception, neuro-rehabilitation, and pain treatments, contribute to the understanding of neurological and psychiatric disease, and have impacts on the fields of robotics and virtual reality.

But finding basic brain response to VR is just the beginning. Next up for the researchers is to induce stronger illusions of the self by altering signals of balance and limb position—two very powerful bodily cues. Once subjects can no longer distinguish between the real and the virtual self, and imaging may be able to glimpse the causal mechanisms of self-consciousness and solve the mystery of the "I" once and for all.

Explore further: Long-term effects of battle-related 'blast plus impact' concussive TBI in US military

Provided by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Perceiving touch and your self outside of your body

Aug 05, 2009

When you feel you are being touched, usually someone or something is physically touching you and you perceive that your "self" is located in the same place as your body. In new research published in the open-access, peer-reviewed ...

Shrinking waistline is all in the mind

Nov 29, 2005

Researchers have identified the area of the brain which controls perception of our body image by using an illusion that made people think their waists were shrinking.

When virtual reality feels real (w/Video)

May 11, 2009

Despite advances in computer graphics, few people would think virtual characters or objects are real. Yet placed in a virtual reality environment most people will interact with them as if they are really there. ...

Brain stimulation creates shadow person

Sep 20, 2006

Swiss scientists say they've found electrical stimulation of the brain can create the sensation of a "shadow person" mimicking one's bodily movements.

Virtual reality you can reach out and touch

Jul 01, 2010

A team of European researchers has "virtually" teleported real objects through cyberspace, touched things in virtual reality and even felt the movements of a virtual dance partner.

QBI scientist looks at why stroke causes vision problems

Jun 06, 2007

The research, by QBI neuroscientist Professor Jason Mattingley and colleagues at the University of Melbourne and University College London, has implications for understanding "spatial neglect", a disorder associated with ...

Recommended for you

Turning off depression in the brain

4 hours ago

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Rapid whole-brain imaging with single cell resolution

5 hours ago

A major challenge of systems biology is understanding how phenomena at the cellular scale correlate with activity at the organism level. A concerted effort has been made especially in the brain, as scientists are aiming to ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RayVecchio
not rated yet Feb 17, 2011
This is pretty much in agreement with what Damasio says...

More news stories

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...

Study recalculates costs of combination vaccines

One of the most popular vaccine brands for children may not be the most cost-effective choice. And doctors may be overlooking some cost factors when choosing vaccines, driving the market toward what is actually a more expensive ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...