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Children can have ‘out of body experiences’

Published: 20 March 2017 at 00:01

A volunteer taking part in an 'out of body' experiment

Study demonstrates how ‘sense of self’ develops by triggering full body illusion

New research published in the journal Developmental Science shows for the first time that children as young as six can undergo virtual ‘out of body experiences’, with the results demonstrating how the ‘sense of self’ develops.

The study was carried out by scientists Dr Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University, Dr Dorothy Cowie of Durham University and Dr Andy Bremner and Aisling McKenna of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Children aged 6-10 years, as well as adults, took part in an experiment that created a full body illusion, causing them to dissociate themselves from their bodies.

The participants viewed their own ‘virtual’ bodies for two minutes through virtual reality goggles, while their backs were stroked.  The video images were fed to the goggles by a camera placed two metres behind them.

Seeing a touch on a virtual body while synchronously feeling it on one’s own body evokes the illusion that one’s self is situated closer to the location of the virtual body and outside one’s own body.  It also induces a stronger feeling of ownership for the virtual body, for example the feeling that the virtual body is ‘my body’.

The scientists found that children as young as six reported sensations of identifying the virtual body as their own, and children as young as eight reported being able to feel touch on the virtual body.  As the effects on both self-identification and touch referral became stronger with age, the study suggests that the basic ‘sense of self’ develops significantly during childhood.

Dr Dorothy Cowie, Assistant Professor at Durham University, said: 

“This study shows how powerful multisensory information is for children in understanding their own bodies. 

“It also provides a striking demonstration of protracted development in the sensory foundations of the bodily self.  As age increased, so too did the link between visual and touch synchrony, and self-identification with the virtual body.”

Dr Jane Aspell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 

“This study shows the promise of using virtual technologies with children.  For the first time we have been able to measure children’s presence in a virtual environment.  The more presence you experience in a virtual reality situation, the more real it seems.

“Through commercially available systems such as the Oculus Rift, there is now a greater opportunity to use virtual reality within education as well as computer games. 

“Recent work with adults has shown that virtual environments can be useful tools for helping with rehabilitation, therapies and understanding social interactions, for example in reducing implicit racial bias or simulating dangerous situations in a safe environment.”