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Turn yourself into a virtual Freud, and you just might feel better

When study subjects get advice from a virtual counselor that looks like them and another that looks like the 19th-century doctor, they report that one helps their mood more.

SISSA/University of Barcelona

What if you could have a virtual Sigmund Freud at the ready to offer you on-the-spot counseling? You might end up with way more mother issues, but that's a story for another day.

To better explore the link between virtual reality and cognition, psychologists from the University of Barcelona had subjects give themselves advice both as an avatar that looked like Freud and an avatar that looked like them. And which produced better results? The virtual doc, suggesting that if our self-talk gets relayed in the voice of someone authoritative, the impact could be even greater than if it's just us giving ourselves a talking-to.

Past experiments have shown that when people see a life-size virtual body from a first-person perspective via immersive virtual reality, they perceive that body to be their own, to the extent that they even experience themselves as another gender.

Still offering guidance, this time in virtual form. SISSA/University of Barcelona

This experiment indicates that seeing a life-size virtual body from a first-person vantage point can affect not only perceptions of the physical world, but thoughts as well. The researchers believe their "virtual-body paradigm for self-counseling" could have applications for mental health, particularly in areas where professionals are scarce.

For their study, researchers led by Sofia Adelaide Osimo had 22 male participants wear an Oculus DK2 head-mounted VR display and enter a virtual room.

In one phase of the experiment, subjects described a personal problem -- boss-related frustrations, for example -- and then immediately "jumped" into Freud's virtual body to reply to themselves, listening to "Freud's voice" (which was really the subject talking but edited with a lower pitch). The exchange could go on for as many turns as the subject wished.

Other times, the avatar giving advice looked not like Freud, but just like the study participant, as if to mimic the experience of mulling over a problem in ones own head. Volunteers reported greater mood improvement when the advice came from the Freud avatar than the one that looked like them.

"The results are clear: giving oneself advice is always effective, but doing it as Sigmund Freud works better," Osimo said in a statement.


The basic conclusion is that stepping outside of oneself can provide enough of a perspective shift to afford "access to mental resources that are normally not accessible due to their habitual modes of thinking about themselves," says the study, which appeared earlier this month in Scientific Reports, an online, open-access journal from the publishers of Nature.

It's long been understood that the way we talk to ourselves can profoundly impact our feelings and behavior -- cognitive behavior therapy is based on this idea -- but the experiment takes that principle into fascinating futuristic territory.

So why Freud as virtual counselor and not Carl Jung or Dr. Phil? The father of psychoanalysis ranked at the top of the list when researchers asked students around campus to name a famous person they wished they could talk to about a personal problem. Paging Virtual Dr. Freud! Paging Virtual Dr. Freud!