Spending some time in some other person’s body makes your sense of self and memory shift, a new study shows. It is almost as if your brain is adapting to better match the new form – a mesmerizing peek into the correlation between the physical and the psychological.
Scientists haven’t actually do any real physical ‘body swap,’ but in this case, 33 pairs of friends managed to virtually swap bodies using headsets, and as they looked around, they saw themselves in their friend’s body.
The Adaption Process
The experiments were only carried out for a few minutes, but they showed that the friends quickly felt like they were using each other’s bodies. For instance, when one of the pair was threatened with a knife, the other would usually feel fear.
In addition, based on questions asked before and throughout the tests, participants quickly began to feel more like the other than themselves, in terms of talkativeness, cheerfulness, independence, and confidence.
“We show that the self-concept has the potential to change really quickly, which brings us to some potentially interesting practical implications,” says neuroscientist Pawel Tacikowski from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “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.”
Numerous depersonalization disorders, where there is a detach between the mental state and the physical body, could be better understood by the discoveries, the team of researchers thinks. The experiments also showed an impact on memory as well as participants performed worse in episodic memory tests after they had taken part in the exercise.
“There is a well-established finding that people are better at remembering things that are related to themselves,” says Tacikowski. “So, we thought if we interfered with one’s self-representation during the illusion, that should generally decrease their memory performance.”
A Real-Life Freaky Friday
The scientists mention that the people who embraced the switch more fully did better in the memory tests. That could be due to the fact that ‘self-incoherence’ was lower, as per the researchers.
Simply put, there was less of a gap between the sense of self and the physical body, even if that sense of self and body had switched. This inconsistency seems to impact the way we encode episodic memories.
The research elicits all types of interesting questions about how much our sense of self is based on our perceptions of the body that we have, and not least because that body changes and ages with time, which has to also see psychological effects.
There’s a lot of more studies to be done in this domain in order to analyze the physical and psychological, including a broader range of people over a longer period. However, now we know – even though just a little bit more – how a real-life swap might unfold.
“As a child, I liked to imagine what it would be like to one day wake up in someone else’s body,” says Tacikowski. “Many kids probably have those fantasies, and I guess I’ve never grown out of it – I just turned it into my job.”
A paper detailing the research has been published in iScience.