New research reveals what it's like to inhabit someone else's body
You actually score worse on memory tests.
- The idea of inhabiting someone else's body can be found in some of humanity's earliest mythologies.
- A team at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet conducted a body-switching experiment with 33 pairs of friends.
- The findings could have profound clinical implications down the road, such as in depression treatment.
Humans have long been fascinated with the possibility of inhabiting another body, as if consciousness was transferrable through an esoteric (or medical) procedure. Paramahansa Yogananda wrote about his guru dropping his body to take over a dead man by a riverbank (a likely play on a metaphorical transition in the "Bhagavad Gita"). A more humorous example is the 2003 comedy, "Freaky Friday," in which Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan wake up to find they've switched bodies—an existential crisis that ultimately results in a grand moment of empathy.
What if you could accomplish such a feat? Unlike the relatively smooth physical transition in "Freaky Friday," researchers have suggested that such an act would result in severe disassociation, akin to powerful LSD. Your motor patterns would be different; the way you move through space alone would require an entirely new education. The idea that you'd just pick up where you left off in new skin is implausible.
Humans will try any novel ideas. Though the consciousness-switching tech isn't quite ready, VR headsets are widely available. While still clunky (due to the weight and feel of the headset), a sense of embodiment is rather convincing. And so a team led by Karolinska Institutet neuroscientist Pawel Tacikowski handed 33 pairs of friends goggles and let them trade places. The results have just been published in iScience.
The most fascinating aspect of their findings concerns the concept of self. We often think of our self as an island in an ocean of islands, but reality isn't quite that simple. As neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has written, the idea that the self is "entirely private is to a significant extent a social construct—a story you make up for others." This narrative imposes social stability and also acts as cover to shield your true feelings from others.
Decades of neuroscience research has found the self is not a fixed identity but a fluid state of being. "You" change according to the environment you're in and the people you're around. Changes are often undetectable, as least to you. You likely don't realize your "self" depends on everything around you at all times. There is no island.
It's not that you don't bring anything to the table, however. Your memories—specifically, episodic memories—play a leading role in perception. Because of this, the very concept of "reality" is often debated. Is shared reality possible? Likely not. You regularly create reality based on your past experiences.
Upon assuming their friend's body, volunteers in this study assigned their friend's personality characteristics to their new skin. This process was informed by their own memories of the other person.
"These findings demonstrate that our beliefs about [our] own personality are dynamically shaped by the perception of our body and that coherence between the bodily and conceptual self-representations is important for the normal encoding of episodic memories."
Incredibly, this meant the volunteer lost track of who they are. Their perception of their friend dominated while inhabiting a foreign body. They ended up performing worse on memory tests about their own lives due to how bound up those memories are with their bodies. A major strike against dualism.
Photo: Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock
While this might seem like a freaky and fun experiment, Tacikowski is looking at the real-world applications of such a phenomenon.
"People who suffer from depression often have very rigid and negative beliefs about themselves that can be devastating to their everyday functioning. If you change this illusion slightly, it could potentially make those beliefs less rigid and less negative."
Tacikowski first wants to further investigate the neural correlates of body-switching. He's interested in how we construct the self in the first place. Once that's better understood, he believes clinical applications will naturally follow.
This sort of research also helps overturn an inherent biological impulse to separate body and mind. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes, we need to recognize both aspects of ourselves as continuous partners.
"They are not aloof entities signaling each other like chips in a cell phone. In plain talk, brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup."
Still, an unshackled imagination leads to great storytelling, like Krishna on a battlefield and Yogananda on a riverbank. There's no harm in such tales provided we recognize them as metaphors. Until then, we dream forward the possibility until science fiction again becomes real.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.
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- The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
- The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".
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