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If you're so smart, why is your brain convinced you're invisible?

Tricking the brain into thinking its body can't be seen is easier than you might think. That can be helpful in stressful situations, but does it make virtual reality more dangerous?

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This photo montage shows how the illusion of having an invisible body was created. Staffan Larsson

Your brain might not be as smart as it thinks it is, but that could be good news for fulfilling your childhood (and let's be honest, your adulthood) fantasies of being invisible.

Using a virtual-reality headset and just a few props, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden were able to essentially trick study participants into thinking and feeling as though they were invisible. The mere illusion of having an invisible body lowered levels of social anxiety in the test subjects, despite being fully aware of the illusion.

Here's how it works, according to the scientists. The study participant puts on a virtual-reality headset while standing and then looks down toward where their body should be, but instead sees a live camera feed pointed at an identical empty space in the same room. The participant is then touched on the abdomen with a paintbrush, while an identical paintbrush is seen via the live virtual feed touching the area of their "invisible abdomen."

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This guy feels invisible. Staffan Larsson

This high-tech but ultimately simple perceptual illusion, which was performed on 125 study participants, was enough to trick the brain into believing that it was suddenly in control of an invisible body.

"Within less than a minute, the majority of the participants started to transfer the sensation of touch to the portion of empty space where they saw the paintbrush move and experienced an invisible body in that position," Arvid Guterstam, lead author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, said in a statement.

The hope is that the findings might one day play a role in treatments for social anxiety disorder, whose sufferers experience fear, sometimes extreme and debilitating, of certain social situations. In another experiment, the researchers found that the illusion of invisibility also reduced the stress felt when participants were placed in front of an audience of strangers.

"We found that their heart rate and self-reported stress level during the 'performance' was lower when they immediately prior had experienced the invisible body illusion compared to when they experienced having a physical body," Guterstam said.

So there's plenty of reason to believe that feeling invisible can help you to chill out, but perhaps most interesting for science fiction fans is the way in which the researchers sought to demonstrate that participants' brains had really bought into the illusion. This was done by making a stabbing motion with a knife at the empty space where the belly of the "invisible body" was perceived to be.

Presumably, this is the point where many subjects began to regret volunteering for the experiment, as they showed an elevated sweat response to the threat of the knife. That response was absent when the illusion was broken, leading the researchers to conclude that the brain interpreted the threat to empty space as a threat against its invisible body, thanks to the power of the illusion.

This leads to the most obvious question that the researchers failed to address: Does this mean that if you died in the Matrix, you really would die in real life? Is the body's physical response that closely tied to illusory threats that it might go into a state of shock?

"I wouldn't go as far as to claim that being killed in the Matrix would lead to a fatal state shock, however, you would definitely show an elevated sweat response," Guterstam told CNET's Crave blog in an e-mail.

Thank goodness. Looks like the folks at Oculus/Facebook won't have to lawyer up and I can finally feel a little less stressed during the next CraveCast without having to do terrible things to ravens to get my invisibility chill time on beforehand.