It is common for a person to be much better at giving useful advice to a friend in trouble than they are at dealing with their own problems. Researchers explain that although we usually have a continuous internal dialogue, we become trapped inside our own way of thinking with our own history and point of view. A research team from the University of Barcelona (UB), IDIBAPS, and Virtual BodyWorks, is using immersive virtual reality to observe the effects of talking to ourselves as if we were another person.

In a new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers discovered that a conversation with oneself embodied as Dr. Sigmund Freud was more effective than talking with Freud about personal problems in a virtual conversation with pre-scripted comments.

The study researchers suggest the method could be used by clinicians to help people dealing with minor personal problems.

The study was led by Mel Slater and Solène Neyret, researchers at the Experimental Virtual Environments Lab for Neuroscience and Technology (Event Lab) at UB, and, clinical psychologist Guillem Feixas, of the UB Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology.

Previous studies developed by this research team have shown that when we adopt a different body using virtual reality, we change our behavior, attitude, and perception of things.

“We showed earlier that it is possible for people to talk to themselves as if they were another person, body swapping to two different avatars, and that participants’ mood and happiness improved.

However, we didn’t know whether this was due to simply the participant talking about their problem or whether the virtual body swapping really made a difference,” said Mel Slater, also a member of the research team.

In order to test the body-swapping idea, researchers compared one group who talked to themselves first embodied as the participant and then body-swapping to a virtual Sigmund Freud; and a control group who spoke to the virtual Freud, but in this case, Freud responded with pre-scripted questions and comments (there was nobody swapping).

For this method, researchers scanned the person to obtain an ‘avatar’ which is a 3D-likeness of the person.

In virtual reality, when they look at themselves, at their body parts, or in a mirror, they will see a representation of themselves. When they move their real body, their virtual body will move in the same way and at the same time. Seated across the table is another virtual human, in the case of this experiment, a representation of Freud.

The participant can explain their personal problem to Freud and then switch to being embodied as Freud. Once embodied as Freud, they will see Freud’s body rather than their own, and this Freud’s body will move in synchrony with their own movements.

“They will see and hear their own likeness explaining the problem, and they see their virtual self as if this were another person. Now they themselves have become the ‘friend’ who is listening and trying to help,” said Mel Slater.

While embodied as Freud, and after perceiving a strong likeness of themselves describing a problem, they can respond, as Freud, back to themselves and ask a question or help the person (themselves) find a solution.

After this, they are embodied once again in their own body and they can see and hear Freud’s answer. Although it was really themselves who had spoken through Freud, their voice will be disguised as Freud’s. They can keep switching back and forth between the two bodies and have a conversation with themselves.

Researchers discovered the technique greatly helped participants deal with personal problems.

Specifically, one week after the completion of the experiment more than 80 percent of participants in the body-swapping group reported a change with respect to their problem, compared to less than 50 percent in the control group.

“We found that those in the body-swapping group got better knowledge, understanding, control, and new ideas about their problem compared to the control group,” said Slater.

Participants were guided by clinical psychologist Tania Johnston about how to formulate their problems. Therefore, a limitation of the study is that researchers do not know whether this method could be used without this prior clinical advice and the extent to which the clinician could be incorporated into the virtual reality as part of the procedure.

However, researchers believe that this method could be a useful tool for clinicians.

“Now that virtual reality is available as a consumer product, with high quality at less than the cost of a good Smartphone, this method could be widely used by clinicians, for example, by giving ‘homework’ to their clients to carry out this type of method at home,” said Slater.

Source: University of Barcelona