Turning People ‘Invisible’ With Virtual Reality Reduces Their Social Stress

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Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It sounds like a sci-fi plot point, but scientists are actively working on ways to make things invisible, with the eventual goal of creating Harry Potter–esque invisibility garments. A team of neuroscientists from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet was curious about the psychological effects of invisibility — embodied cognition, after all, tells us that the body can influence the mind in surprising ways.

So the team, led by Arvid Guterstam, ran a series of virtual-reality experiments, the results of which were published in Scientific Reports. Sometimes, the participants were granted a virtual “body,” while sometimes when the participants looked down they saw nothing at all. Perhaps the most interesting result involved an experiment in which the participants found themselves at the front of a group of people, all looking at them — an awkward, potentially embarrassing experience. Both the participants’ self-reported stress levels and their heart rates suggested that they found the experience less stressful when they were “invisible.”

There’s a lot more work to be done in this area, but virtual reality has a lot of untapped potential — folks like Nick Yee have written some interesting stuff about how warping our bodies might help us change our minds for the better.