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Researchers Conducting ‘Avatar’-Like VR Experiments

February 18, 2011

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction films, but researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique F©d©rale de Lausanne (EPFL) Brain Mind Institute are using virtual reality and brain imaging technology to study the feeling of owning one’s body, as well as near-death and out-of-body experiences.

According to a February 17 press release, the study, which is being led by EPFL and University of Geneva neurologist Olaf Blanke, is believed to be “the first experimental, data-driven approach to understanding self-consciousness.”

By using both VR technology and cognitive science techniques, they performed a series of experiments in which they immersed subjects into the body of a virtual human, ala the popular James Cameron motion picture ‘Avatar.’ Each participant in the study had their brain activity monitored through a skullcap equipped with electrodes, and were then inserted into mock 3D environments through “a head-mounted stereoscopic visor or projections on a large screen.”

They then performed different techniques to break the participants out of their physical comfort zones by doing things like touching their real bodies alternately at the same time or at different times as their avatar or placing them in a virtual body of the opposite gender.

They measured the brain activity the whole time, and they hope that their experiments will lead to “advanced in the fields of touch and balance perception, neuro-rehabilitation, and pain treatments, contribute to the understanding of neurological and psychiatric disease, and have impacts on the fields of robotics and virtual reality.”

However, according to Telegraph Science Correspondent Richard Alleyne, Blanke and his colleagues are also looking to apply the results of their study to more spiritual or supernatural areas.

“Throughout history people have described how they have floated from their bodies and looked back at themselves, often when close to death or on the operating table,” Alleyne wrote in a Friday article. “The accounts have been so vivid that they are often cited as proof of the existence of the soul or Heaven.”

“But scientists now claim they have dispelled this myth by artificially creating an out-of-body experience using computers and cameras,” he added. “They believe the feeling of detachment occurs when the brain becomes confused by conflict between the senses–and is not proof of any ‘spiritual dimension’ to existence.”

The unpublished study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Thursday.

Image Caption: Olaf Blanke conducts experiment to understand the way the brain represents the body by combining VR induced illusions and brain signal readings to better understand the cognitive basis for spatial representation. Credit: EPFL

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