'Avatar' experiments cast light on consciousness

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Scientists have been able to 'project' people's consciousness into a computer avatar, in much the same way as happens in the movie.

Professor Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, immersed subjects, via virtual reality (VR), into the body of an avatar.

Each person was fitted with an electrode-studded skullcap to monitor brain activity, and exposed to different 3D environments through a head-mounted stereoscopic visor or projections on a large screen. The subjects could stand, move their heads, and walk with the VR on.

Blanke and his colleagues then played about with the most fundamental aspects of consciousness in their subjects, such as 'Where am I in space' and 'What is my body?' by physically touching their real-life volunteers either in or out of sync with the avatar.

They even swapped perspectives from first to third person and put their male subjects inside female avatars.

And they found that participants were able to experience the virtual body as if it were theirs. They felt as if they were actually in the avatar, rather than behind it, and felt the avatar's experiences as their own.

The team also found big changes in the brain's temporo-parietal and frontal regions — the parts responsible for integrating touch and vision into a coherent perception.

"Traditional approaches have not been looking at the right information in order to understand the notion of the 'I' of conscious feeling and thinking," Blanke says.

"Our research approaches the self first of all as the way the body is represented in the brain and how this affects the conscious mind. And this concept of the bodily self most likely came before more developed notions of 'I' in the evolutionary development of man."

Next, the researchers hope to induce stronger illusions of the self by altering signals of balance and limb position — two very powerful bodily cues, they say.