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Standing in someone else's shoes ... almost literally

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Swedish scientists have demonstrated one of the brain's more unusual abilities: the brain, "when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own."

The technique is simple. A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist's containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist's arms, and below is the scientist's body.

To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other's hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and "feel" the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete. In a series of studies, using mannequins and stroking both bodies' bellies simultaneously, the Karolinska researchers have found that men and women say they not only feel they have taken on the new body, but also unconsciously cringe when it is poked or threatened.

In previous work, neuroscientists have induced various kinds of out-of-body experiences using similar techniques. The brain is so easily tricked, they say, precisely because it has spent a lifetime in its own body. It builds models of the world instantaneously, based on lived experience and using split-second assumptions -- namely, that the eyes are attached to the skull.

The article goes on to discuss possible therapeutic applications, using results developed from virtual reality studies to outline what might be possible.