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Will contents of your mind be different in a new body?

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Posted January 26, 2015

It is well-known that our perception towards other groups is affected by various prejudices. Present laboratory techniques allow to create illusions of possessing a body of a different gender, race or age. Interestingly, they reduce biases towards members of other groups.

Image credit: NASA via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Image credit: NASA via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

”These findings suggest that changes in the perceived similarity between self and others, caused by shared multisensory experiences, might ‘bridge the gap’ between the basic, perceptual representation of bodies, and the complex social mechanisms underlying much of our everyday social interaction,” the group of spanish and british scholars says.

Previous research revealed that people feel stronger empathy towards individuals belonging to their own group. For instance, experiments showed that sharing of a painful bodily state decreases when we observe a person of a different race. But what mechanism underlies this difference and how can we reduce strength of these preconceptions?

Series of laboratory studies provides one very interesting answer to the latter question.  “Over the past 20 years, advances in experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience and virtual reality have allowed scientists to experiment with a fundamental element of self-awareness, the sense of body ownership, using a range of bodily illusions, such as the Rubber Hand Illusion, the Full Body Illusion and the Enfacement Illusion,” Mel Slater at University College London says. For instance, full body illusions can be created using a special helmet which places respondents in the virtual reality where they have different bodies.

Number of studies showed that the strength of prejudices towards members of other groups decreased among persons who were exposed to these illusions. These results show that changing your body can also alter contents of your mind.

“We argue that these changes occur via a process of self association, first in the physical, bodily domain as an increase in perceived physical similarity between self and outgroup member, and then in the conceptual domain, leading to a generalization of positive self-like associations to the outgroup,” authors of the article published in the Trend in Cognitive Sciences think.

This mechanism is well known in the literature of associative learning and can explain observations collected during recent experiments. “The novel step we have taken is to pair an associative account with what we know about the perceived physical similarity elicited by bodily illusions,” the scholars explain.

Article: Maister L., Slater M. , V. Sanchez-Vives M. , Tsakiris M., 2015, Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition, Volume 19, Issue 1, p6–12, January 2015, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, source link.

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