Using some virtual reality technology and a number of psychological tricks, the researchers garnered some interesting data about how invisibility might affect people. The results were published in the journal Nature (1).
The theme of invisibility has been a standard in science fiction and fantasy at least since the H.G. Wells novel “The Invisible Man” was published in 1897.
More recently, readers and film goers all over the world have been able to thrill at the antics of Harry Potter and his friends at the Hogwarts School of Magic. Using a “borrowed” invisibility cloak (2), the group is able to get into mischief and to get away with it.
A number of researchers are working on what is in effect a real life invisibility cloak, something more commonly called “optical camouflage” (3).
The idea is that certain types of materials can be configured in such a way that light bends around them, leaving the object effectively invisible to the naked eye.
Harry Potter’s Cloak
A real-life version of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak is still a while away. But researchers believe that the technology would be a great way to make military vehicles, even big, lumbering tanks, stealthy enough that it will be hard for an enemy to draw a bead on them. Eventually individual soldiers will be able to wear uniforms made of the material, allowing them to maintain their hidden positions.
When people are actually able to render themselves invisible by simply putting on a cloak or something similar, all sorts of societal problems are going to present themselves.
Invisibility would be a great aid for criminals. Why risk detection when you can simply walk unseen into a home or business and walk out with valuables? And the potential for stalkers and worse people almost doesn’t bear thinking about. On the other hand, another tool for espionage will have been created.
Fortunately technology provides a solution. The sort of material being contemplated for optical camouflage does not shield a human body’s heat signature. No doubt future security cameras will be configured to pick up the heat a human being generates, even if they cannot be seen in the visual spectrum.
This brings us back to the study, entitled “Illusory ownership of an invisible body reduces autonomic and subjective social anxiety responses.”
The researchers wanted to know if the illusion of having an invisible body would cause a subject to experience reduced social anxiety. The study involved 125 participants and involved measuring physiological changes such as heart rate and by means of a questionnaire. The study put the subjects through scenarios involving being in front of an audience and being threatened by a knife.
The results of the study confirmed the theory that people experience reduced levels of anxiety when they perceive themselves to be invisible.
This idea was already explored in the animated film “The Incredibles” when Violet literally turns invisible when she undergoes stress.
The results of the study have some real-world implications. The study points to a possible therapy that could help treat people who have extreme social anxiety disorder.
The results of the study could also be used to help people with spinal injuries who have a condition called “phantom body” illusions in which they perceive having a body that is misaligned with the actual paralyzed body.
What is next for the study of the psychology of invisibility? One possible line of research may be to ascertain how much more likely a person would commit a criminal or immoral act if they perceive themselves to be invisible. Eventually the results of such a study are going to be needed as well.