Virtual Reality Sigmund Freud Gives Good Advice, Study Finds

EVENT lab, UB / EVENT lab, UB

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be the world’s most famous Austrian psychoanalyst—and analyze yourself at the same time? A group of scientists tried to answer that question recently by putting subjects into a virtual reality animation of Sigmund Freud’s body and having them give themselves psychological advice.

According to Science Daily, the researchers designed the study to gather information about how the perception of being in someone else’s body affects the way we think. They enlisted subjects in need of specific psychological advice, then “transformed” them into Freud with advanced virtual reality devices. In the study, subjects first embodied virtual reality avatars of themselves, and described their problem to Freud. Then, they switched to Freud’s body, and attempted to answer their own questions. Finally, back in their own VR bodies, they listened to Freud’s recorded response—which, of course, was their own response, with a slightly modified voice. 

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, found that subjects had a more positive response to their own advice when it came from the VR Freud avatar. When subjects simply talked out issues as themselves, they found the advice less effective.

According to the researchers, the feeling of embodying someone we see as authoritative affects the way we feel and think about ourselves. But there’s one catch—the illusion needs to be complete. Versions of the study in which Freud’s movements were not perfectly synchronized with subjects’ broke the illusion and nullified the impact of his advice. According to the study, “this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to effect cognitive changes.”

Researchers specifically chose Freud for their study because of his fame. According to researcher Sofia Adelaide Osimo, “Freud was not only found to be very authoritative and well-known, but his image proved also to be highly recognizable and prototypical." The idea that simply “feeling like Freud” can affect our self-perception is powerful; though the researchers haven’t announced plans for more celebrity-embodiment experiments, it’s interesting to imagine future studies on how we respond to embodying other great thinkers or media personalities. 

[h/t: Science Daily]