Saturday, May 15, 2010

Body Swapping

Body swapping-- an amusing term that refers to some fascinating psychological research.

Psychologists in Barcelona created a headset with a set of goggles. They took a group of men and hooked them up to these goggles. When each man moved his eyes to look at his own body, he did not see his own body. He saw a woman's body. Link here. Via Instapundit.

So far, so good. The fascinating part is that he men's minds adapted very quickly to the virtual body that they had been looking at and they started to respond as women, thus with greater sensitivity. Thus the mind is very easily tricked into identifying with a body that it sees. And it can rather quickly be induced to forget what it knows: that is, its own gender.

I would mention that the effect ceases once the man removes the goggles.

For the moment I will not ask why these scientists are trying to produce gender dysphoria.

Because, after all, we can easily imagine that this research can have medical value. As the article mentions, it might well have applications in rehabilitation medicine.

And the article notes that the experiment sheds light on an old neuroscientific puzzle: how do we know that the parts of our body form a coherent whole? And how do we know that they are ours?

You may not find this to be a very compelling question, but it is surely worth a paragraph. I first encountered it in the writings of Jacques Lacan. Lacan hypothesized that a child gains access to the feeling that the parts of his body are connected by seeing himself in a mirror. By extension, seeing the image of another human being would have a similar effect.

This seems to be a variation on the theory of imprinting, which suggests, somewhat controversially, that normal biological growth and development require exposure to an animal of the same species. Experiments by Konrad Lorenz showed that geese that were brought up by humans, without any contact with other geese, did not, effectively, know that they were geese.

The fact that the mind is so easily tricked by a visual image suggests that our sense of having a unified body and our ability to identify that body must, to some extent, depend on what we see.

As I say, this research has real value, and that value deserves emphasis.

Like much knowledge, it is also subject to misuse. The scientists who invented it seem to believe that it will work wonders for teaching people empathy. How better to know how it feels to walk in someone else's shoes than to walk in them virtually.

When thin people are hooked up to this headset they learn what it feels like to be fat. When men are hooked up they learn how it feels to be women.

As for why they did not seem to perform the experiment on women, to allow them to feel like men, the answer lies in their bias.

A hint to the prejudice that animated the experiment can be found in this statement, from the newspaper article: "Scientists have transferred men's minds into a virtual woman's body in an experiment that could enlighten the prejudiced and shed light on how humans distinguish themselves from others."

Let's accept that that is an accurate statement of their motives. Is it not strange that they assume that men who do not feel as women feel are being called unenlightened bigots? Doesn't this tell us that a very valuable piece of scientific research has been founded on an idea that is prejudicial to men?

To take the other side of the argument, the experiment provides men a glimpse into what it feels like to be a woman. And being a woman, like being a man, involves more than a momentary glimpse.


jimbino said...

Maybe that explains the usefulness of male viewing of pornography.

DADvocate said...

could enlighten the prejudiced

Although, as you pointed out, the most prejudices may well be the scientists and their prejudice against men.