Mel Slater's Presence Blog

Thoughts about research and radical new applications of virtual reality - a place to write freely without the constraints of academic publishing,and have some fun.

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I still find immersive virtual reality as thrilling now as when I first tried it 20 years ago.

10 September, 2015

In the Presence of Freud

Counselling Yourself in Immersive Virtual Reality

Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlang, Mel Slater (2015)
Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling, Scientific Reports, 5, 13899; doi: 10.1038/srep13899

Most people silently talk to themselves in order to help resolve personal problems, and for many other reasons. But when you talk to yourself who are you talking to? Suppose that the ‘other self’ that you're talking to is actually represented as another person who listens to you and replies - but the reply is actually your own reply?


We have used immersive virtual reality to provide a way that you can have a conversation with yourself, but the other ‘you’ that you talk with can be represented as another person (or even another copy of yourself). The idea was to investigate whether this method would reduce the negative feelings associated with personal problems.

In our experiment people had a virtual body that looked like themselves, that they could see when looking directly towards their own body, and also in a mirror. The body moved in synchrony and in correspondence with their own movements.

In one condition of the experiment the participants saw a representation of Dr Sigmund Freud standing at the other side of the virtual room. As they explained their personal problem to him he was gesturing to indicate that he was listening. In the next phase the person was then embodied in the Freud body that also they saw directly by looking towards themselves and in a mirror. The Freud body moved the same as they did. While in the Freud body they saw and heard their own body representation on the other side of the room explain the problem to them. Then as Freud they could offer counselling.

They then switched back to their own body, and could see and hear the Freud body delivering his counselling. The voice of the Freud body was their own voice, but with a deeper pitch so as to disguise it. They could switch back and forward between their own body and the Freud body until they felt they had a resolution of the problem.

It has been found in many other studies that when a virtual body substitutes your own and moves the same as you do then you have the perceptual illusion that it is your body - irrespective of whether the body looks like you. For example, it could be an adult embodied as a child, a body with a different skin colour to yours, or just a body that doesn't look like you but moves like you. We were interested here also in whether the effect of the counselling as Freud would be enhanced when there is the strong feeling of perceptual body ownership over the Freud body. Hence we had another experimental condition which was the same as described above, except that when you were in the Freud body it moved asynchronously with your own movements. The purpose was to reduce the illusion of perceptual body ownership over the Freud body. Our idea was that in this condition the quality of the outcome in terms of the (self-)counselling reducing the negative feelings around the personal problem would be lessened.



Top left - a stereo view from the point of view of the experimental participant, seeing a virtual body representing himself with Sigmund Freud listening to him on the other side of the room. Top right - the person wearing the virtual reality equipment. Bottom left - the person embodied in the body of Sigmund Freud talking back to a representation of himself. Bottom right - the real person being scanned to capture his body image.

In a third condition of the experiment participants did not see Freud but a copy of themselves on the other side of the room, otherwise the setup was the same as the first, with synchronous virtual body movement.  In other words in this condition they really had a conversation with themselves.

In both synchronous conditions participants had a strong illusion of body ownership - whether the body they saw was their own, or that of Freud.

In all conditions there was an improvement in the feelings about the personal problem that had been under discussion. However, we found participants experienced the greatest improvement in their feelings about their personal problem in the condition where participants interacted with the Freud body that moved the same as they did, 

Our method allows a realisation in virtual reality of ‘talking to yourself’ but with the added twist that the ‘self’ that you talk with can represent anyone else who could be good at offering advise or counselling. From the perspective of that other person you can view your problem in another light, and perhaps reach towards a solution in a better way.



This work was funded under the European Research Council Project TRAVERSE.