Men can experience what it is to be a woman, thanks to a new virtual-reality experiment where men can sport headsets that allow them to look into a woman's body.
This technology creates an illusion of being in someone else's skin, as a simulated world can be observed through a life-size virtual girl's eyes.
Cognitive scientist Mel Slater of University of Barcelona and his colleagues claim that this may lead to virtual-reality games in which human players actually feel that they've switched places with virtual characters.
"When subjects looked down they saw a different body, suggesting that this was a powerful cue for the brain to generate the illusion that the virtual body was their own," Discovery news quoted Slater, as saying.
The phenomenon can apparently help in future experiments on the nature of self-awareness and body consciousness.
Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, said: "It's especially compelling that such relatively simple manipulations can profoundly alter our sense of reality."
He added that Slater's study "is an elegant and important culmination of over a decade of experiments that demonstrate a powerful role of visual input, whether conveyed by mirrors or video, in maintaining and anchoring body image."
For the experiment, 24 men wore stereo headphones and lightweight head-mounted devices over their eyes that allowed them to move through a virtual room.
For two minutes, volunteers explored the room, which included a standing woman stroking the shoulder of a seated girl.
Participants then stood with the virtual woman and girl. Half were assigned to continue viewing the room from their own perspective for almost seven minutes. The rest assumed the girl's perspective, so that when looking down at themselves they would see her body.
The virtual girl moved her head either in or out of time with volunteers' own head movements. Men in both groups also felt shoulder strokes delivered in or out of sync with the virtual woman's stroking of the girl's shoulder.
Participants' virtual viewpoints were then lifted up toward the ceiling so the men looked down on the girl from a third-person perspective. The woman continued to stroke the girl's shoulder, but the men felt no shoulder strokes.
Suddenly, the woman slapped the girl's face three times.
Men who had previously taken the virtual girl's visual perspective while receiving synchronized shoulder strokes reported having had strong feelings of being inside her skin when the slaps were delivered.
Men who had taken the girl's perspective also displayed sharper heart-rate declines than men who had not. Alarming events typically trigger this physiological response.
More importantly, men whose heart-rate were the steepest during virtual slaps later reported having had especially strong feelings of inhabiting the girl's body.
Also, they claimed that the woman was personally attacking them and that they faced possible physical injury. Such responses show that visual manipulations alone can induce body-swap illusions, the researchers conclude.
Slate concluded: "These devices are beginning to get better, but they're still not at a level for consumer use."