What is it like to be a woman

Another intriguing experiment by Mel Slater‘s group from Barcelona[1], this one sure to get a good whack of popular media coverage. 24 (supposedly normal) healthy blokes put on virtual reality goggles and were ‘transported’ into a scene that contained two virtual women. They then induced the illusion of body transfer, which has been shown before by Henrik Ehrsson[2,3] and others[4], into the body of one of the women. They used a questionnaire and the heart-rate response to seeing their ‘avatar’ hit, both of which have been used before, to assess the strength of the illusion. In short, it worked – the male participants felt a sense of ownership and agency over the female body.

I think the clever bit of this study is the untangling of what aspects of the illusory devices contributed most to its effect. The winner by far was first person versus third person – the other woman stroked the shoulder of the avatar and, simultaneously, the participant felt a stroke on their own shoulder. If they simultaneously saw the other woman stroking from the perspective of the avatar, the illusion was far stronger than if they saw both virtual women from a third person perspective. If you don’t get this, have a look at the figures in their paper. The synchronicity of the felt and seen touch, and the synchronocity of the participant’s head movements with those of the avatar, had an effect, albeit smaller than the perspective thing.

So, Mel Slater has now given some men the feeling of having a woman’s body, but as the woman next to me on the bus yesterday said as we struck up a conversation, first about the stupendous gaff made by our leader of the opposition but then about the experiment in question – “To feel like you have a woman’s body is one thing and not much chop if the woman was me for example, but to know what it is like to be a woman – that glorious state of enlightenment will, I am afraid, be something men will never get.” She then stared wistfully at the beads of Sydney rain – thick and boisterous – race down the window.

References

grey What is it like to be a woman [1] Slater, M., Spanlang, B., Sanchez-Vives, M., & Blanke, O. (2010). First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010564

[2] Petkova, V., & Ehrsson, H. (2008). If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003832

[3] Ehrsson, H. (2007). The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences Science, 317 (5841), 1048-1048 DOI: 10.1126/science.1142175

[4] Lenggenhager B, Tadi T, Metzinger T, & Blanke O (2007). Video ergo sum: manipulating bodily self-consciousness. Science (New York, N.Y.), 317 (5841), 1096-9 PMID: 17717189

Comments

  1. You mentioned at a seminar that there was a lot of love for explain pain and rightly so, but the people I remember are the ones who don’t benefit from this approach & how they can be helped. Are you thinking along the lines of some sort of virtual escape for chronic pain sufferers ?

    Lorimer Reply:

    Hi Mike – I guess in the end this is the sort of thing we are targeting. We have tried to use out of body things to induce analgesia and it doesn’t seem all that effective, but there are still some tricks to perform. Stay tuned. Thanks for posting. L

  2. I really like your blog .

  3. The convos you start up…Yeah I reckon its hard to imagine BEing someone else, never mind effectively a different species :-) However this research has shown that effectively some have the ability to do that. What I love is the ability for you to connect to the heart of that woman…and then convey that in the written word. Well done L…you got her, as you do the majority of your audience

  4. Graeme Campbell says:

    I hope you behaved yourself Mister when you were in the womans’s body!!

    Ooooohh … the possibilities!

  5. Never really thought of it that way since I’ve never been a woman. I really thought your article was delighting.

  6. hi, I like the blog too.
    I want to point out that the statement that we have “given some men the feeling of having a woman’s body” is a lot stronger than we would want to claim. The illusion is that the body that they see in the virtual reality is their body, i.e., they look down at the body, and see it in the mirror and it feels (temporarily) as if it was their body (very hard to describe, you have to experience it). But we cannot go on to say from that they they feel they have the body of a woman, which has many other aspects involved besides physical appearance. It is the same as if we gave the illusion of someone having one arm longer than the other, in the sense of proprioception etc.. It doesn’t mean that they would feel themselves to be a (one) long armed person.
    Mel

    Lorimer Reply:

    Hi all –
    Mel thanks A MILLION for responding to this – I am thrilled that our claim is stronger than yours! I reckon you are completely right – just as when people get the rubber hand illusion, they don’t REALLY believe that their own hand has been replaced – the KNOW it is a fake rubber one. I think the woman next to me on the bus would agree with you regarding many other aspects involved with feeling like a woman! Thanks again Mel – great study and great response here. L