Heart in your hand? Neuroscientists discover a new illusion of consciousness

September 2, 2013 by Jacqui Bealing

The sight of a virtual-reality hand pulsing in time with your heart beat is enough to convince your brain that it's part of your body, according to a new study published this week from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex.

Neuroscientists and have long been fascinated by the 'rubber hand illusion', a clever trick whereby a fake hand is perceived as part of one's body if it is stroked simultaneously with one's real hand. This illusion shows that the brain constructs the experience of 'having a body' and that this experience depends on integration of visual and tactile (touch) .

Until now, little has been known about how the experience of 'body ownership' depends on perception of the body's internal processes, like the . Yet perception of the body "from within" is thought to be crucial for emotion and consciousness.

A new study by Dr. Keisuke Suzuki, Professor Anil Seth, and colleagues at the Sackler Centre – published in the journal Neuropsychologia - now shows that external visualization of one's heartbeat can influence what we experience as our own body.

The team used a unique combination of heartbeat monitoring and augmented reality to implement a 'cardio-visual' version of the rubber hand illusion. Participants wore a '' through which they saw a virtual-reality version of their own hand projected in front of them, while their real hand remained hidden out of view. The virtual hand was made to pulse to red and back either in-time or out-of-time with their heartbeat.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The researchers found that the virtual hand was more likely to be experienced as part of a person's body when the 'cardio-visual' feedback was aligned with the actual heartbeat, than when it was misaligned. This shows that the brain integrates its perception of the body from the outside with its perception from the inside, in determining what is experienced as its body.

Professor Seth says; "The findings tie in with our research at the Sackler Centre showing that many other perceptual and cognitive processes can be affected by the beating of the heart in ways that have important implications for clinical conditions such as anxiety and disorders of body image."

The research also supports a new theory of self and emotion being developed by Professors Seth and Hugo Critchley (Sackler Centre directors), according to which the brain is actively and continuously trying to predict its own physiological and physical states.

The use of new technologies to address old questions highlights the innovative approach to consciousness science adopted by Sackler Centre researchers, and future projects will use similar augmented reality methods to further push the boundaries of how we experience ourselves and the world around us.

The paper is titled 'Multisensory integration across exteroceptive and interoceptive domains modulates self-experience in the illusion.'

Explore further: Body representation differs in children and adults, study finds

More information: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393213002789

Related Stories

Extending the self: Some cold truths on body ownership

May 31, 2013

"Who are you?" Some might ponder this question philosophically, while others will answer straightforwardly: "I am my body and my personality". But the boundaries of "self" are not as straightforward as we might think.

Visualized heartbeat can trigger 'out-of-body experience'

August 14, 2013

A visual projection of human heartbeats can be used to generate an "out-of-body experience," according to new research to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The ...

Heartbeats link mind and body together

August 15, 2013

While we're not necessarily aware of our heartbeat, this inner rhythm actually contributes to how we experience the body, and what belongs to it, according to research recently conducted at EPFL. A study to be published in ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.