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Dialogue with Freud avatar boosts mood

Listening to your own advice through an avatar

Top left, stereo view from the point of view of the experimental participant, seeing a virtual body representing himself with Sigmund Freud listening to him on the other side of the room. Top right, the person wearing the virtual reality equipment. Bottom left, the person embodied in the body of Sigmund Freud talking back to a representation of himself. Bottom right, the real person being scanned to capture his body image.

An overview of the complete scene.

An overview of the complete scene.



Most people silently talk to themselves in order to help resolve personal problems. A research team at the University of Barcelona has used immersive virtual reality to observe the effects of talking with oneself by means of two avatars (virtual representations). Study results, published in the journal Scientific Reports,of the Nature Group, show that conversation with oneself improves people’s mood, particularly when virtual conversation is held with an avatar different from the participant, in this case with the body of Dr Sigmund Freud. Researchers affirm that the method could be used to help people dealing with minor personal problems by seeing things from other perspective.

The study was developed by Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlang and led by Mel Slater, researchers at the Experimental Virtual Environments Lab for Neuroscience and Technology (Event Lab), a research group of the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona.

Previous studies developed by the research team have shown that when we adopt a different body by means of virtual reality, we change our behaviour, attitudes and perception of things. In this case, researchers wanted to know if the illusion of adopting a different body enables you to view your problems in another light and provides new mental resources to face personal problems.
To carry out the study, researchers asked twenty-two participants to think about a personal problem they would like to solve. Then, they had to assess their mood and other well-being indicators by completing a questionnaire. For example, participants described problems like a troubled relationship with their boss or missing a friend that left the city.
Listening to your own advice through an avatar

In the first phase of the experiment, participants embodied a virtual body that seemed to their own body. They perceived similarity by looking to body parts and seeing their image on a mirror. Moreover, the virtual body moved in synchrony with the movements participants made. Participants had to explain their personal problems to a virtual representation of Dr Sigmund Freud that was in front of them. The figure of Freud was selected after asking participants not involved in the study what popular person they would choose to speak about a personal problem.

In the next phase, the person was then embodied in the Freud body that also they saw directly by looking towards themselves and also in a mirror. While in the Freud body they saw and heard their own body representation on the other side of the room explain the problem to them. Then as Freud they could offer counselling.
Then, participants switched back to their own body, and could see and hear the Freud body delivering his counselling. The voice of the Freud body was their own voice, but with a deeper pitch so as to disguise it. They could switch back and forward between their own body and the Freud body until they felt they had a resolution of the problem.

One week later, the experiment was repeated. Instead of seeing Freud, participants saw a copy of themselves at the front side of the virtual room, so they had a virtual conversation with themselves.

Dialogue with Freud avatar boosts mood
Results show that participants’ mood and happiness improved in both cases, but particularly when they were given advice by Freud avatar. “It seems that, in virtual reality and through the view of another person, participants view their problems in another light”, says Mel Slater, coordinator of the Event Lab and researcher at the Catalan Institution for Research Advanced Studies (ICREA).
This virtual way of speaking with oneself may help people to deal with minor problems, for example extreme self-criticism or shame that, under uncontrolled circumstances, can become serious diseases and lead to depression. “Our method could be used as an initial way to deal with uncomfortable personal situations. Moreover, in a context in which the provision of mental health help of even the basic psychological ‘talking therapies’ falls far short of requirements, virtual reality may be a useful and affordable approach to address problems before starting a psychological therapy”, explains Mel Slater. “Today —states the researcher—, this possibility is feasible thanks to the advances of immersive virtual reality technologies and their affordability”.  
Concerning the use of the method to face severe problems, Mel Slater prefers to be cautious. “It is important to remember that in the experiment people only explained minor personal problems and the evaluation of results was made only by examining questionnaires. Further studies must be developed in order to consider if severe problems could be successfully tackled by using this method”, concludes the researcher.

Article reference:

S. Adelaide Osimo, R. Pizarro, B. Spanlang and M. Slater. «Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling». Scientific Reports, setembre de 2015. Doi: 10.1038/srep13899


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