Brain and Body

Men Give Better Self-Advice Under Illusion of “Being” Freud

September 24, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

A virtual reality where study participants embody an avatar of Sigmund Freud (right).
Photo credit: EVENT lab, UB (Image has been cropped)

In a recent study, study participants gave themselves surprisingly insightful advice about their own psychological problems when embodying a virtual avatar of Sigmund Freud.

Sometimes life throws curveballs at us, and it’s easy to feel like our problems are impossible to figure out. If only we could sit down with a perceptive, intuitive guy like Sigmund Freud — surely he’d have all the answers. An intriguing virtual reality (VR) experiment revealed that there may be an insightful Freud within all of us. Some participants actually gave themselves better advice when they were under the illusion of being in Freud’s body than in their own.

In the experiment, the subjects asked for advice on personal psychological problems, and then responded to their own question while embodying Sigmund Freud. The study, led by Sofia Adelaide Osimo, a SISSA researcher who collaborated with colleagues of the EVENT Lab at the University of Barcelona, relied on immersive virtual reality technology to simulate the illusion of being in another’s body. The researchers wanted to discover whether this illusion affected an individual’s thought process, and apparently it successfully inspires people to expand beyond their everyday cognitive processes.

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The study only looked at male participants, and had them switch back and forth between embodying an avatar of themselves and an avatar of Freud. The exchange was also instantaneous — the participants would describe a personal problem while being in their own avatar, and then immediately switch to Freud’s to give themselves advice.

Using extremely sophisticated VR headsets and sensors, the participants were immersed in a virtual room where the movement of the avatars was perfectly synchronized with their own in order to instill a powerful sense of embodiment. Osimo explained that if the avatar’s movements weren’t in perfect sync with the subject’s, the illusion of embodiment becomes significantly reduced, nullifying the effective dialogue with the self. In order for the study subjects to give themselves the best possible advice, they had to become completely lost in the illusion that they were Sigmund Freud.

The researchers also tested how the subjects gave themselves advice when “Freud” was not present. In the second phase of the study, they had to ask questions and give themselves advice, similar to when we contemplate our own problems.

After observing the participants’ interactions with themselves, it was evident that they gave themselves better advice for their own problems when embodying Freud. “The results are clear: giving oneself advice is always effective, but doing it as Sigmund Freud works better,” Osimo said in a statement.

Basically, stepping out of yourself can provide a perspective shift that enables you to think of more insightful and creative solutions — even to your own problems. We’re stuck in certain habitual behaviors and ways of thinking about ourselves, and this can make it difficult to see our own problems in a clear light.

Osimo concludes with some intriguing food for thought: “These findings also open up interesting scenarios on the front of psychological counseling: could virtual reality be used to this end some time in the future?”

Check out the virtual reality technology in the video below.



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