How 'swapping bodies' with a friend changes our sense of self

August 26, 2020

Our sense of who we are is thought to be influenced by things like our childhood experiences, our interactions with others, and now, researchers say, our bodies. A study appearing August 26 in the journal iScience shows that, when pairs of friends swapped bodies in a perceptual illusion, their beliefs about their own personalities became more similar to their beliefs about their friends' personalities. The findings suggest that this close tie between our psychological and physical sense of self is also involved in functions like memory: when our mental self-concept doesn't match our physical self, our memory can become impaired.

"As a child, I liked to imagine what it would be like to one day wake up in someone else's body," says first author Pawel Tacikowski, a postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. "Many kids probably have those fantasies, and I guess I've never grown out of it--I just turned it into my job."

The team from the Brain, Body, and Self Laboratory led by Henrik Ehrsson outfitted pairs of friends with goggles showing live feeds of the other person's body from a first-person perspective. To further the illusion, they applied simultaneous touches to both participants on corresponding body parts so they could also feel what they saw in the goggles. After just a few moments, the illusion generally worked; to show that it did, the researchers threatened the friend's body with a prop knife and found that the participant broke out into a sweat as if they were the one being threatened. "Body swapping is not a domain reserved for science fiction movies anymore," Tacikowski says.

Participants were only made to feel like they had "woken up in someone else's body" for a brief period of time, but that was long enough to significantly alter their self-perception. Before the body swap, participants rated their friends on traits like talkativeness, cheerfulness, independence, and confidence. Compared to this baseline, during the swap, they tended to rate themselves as more similar to the friend whose body they were in.

The illusion also impacted memory. "There is a well-established finding that people are better at remembering things that are related to themselves. So, we thought if we interfered with one's self-representation during the illusion, that should generally decrease their memory performance," says Tacikowski.

And it did: participants in the illusion generally performed worse on memory tests. More importantly, however, participants who more fully embraced their friend's body as their own and significantly adjusted their personality ratings to match how they rated their friend performed better on the tests than those who indicated they felt disconnected from their body. The researchers say this could be because they had less "self-incoherence," meaning that their mental and physical self-representations still aligned.

These findings may be important when looking at depersonalization disorder, where people feel an incoherence between their mental state and their bodies, and other psychiatric disorders like depression. "We show that the self-concept has the potential to change really quickly, which brings us to some potentially interesting practical implications," says Tacikowski. "People who suffer from depression often have very rigid and negative beliefs about themselves that can be devastating to their everyday functioning. If you change this illusion slightly, it could potentially make those beliefs less rigid and less negative."

For now, though, he wants to formulate a more general framework for how the sense of self is constructed across the bodily and psychological levels. "Now, my mind is occupied with the question of how this behavioral effect works--what the brain mechanism is," says Tacikowski. "Then, we can use this model for more specific clinical applications to possibly develop better treatments."
This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council, Torsten Söderberg Stiftelse, Göran Gustafsons Stiftelse, and the European Commission.

iScience, Tacikowski et al.: "Perception of Our Own Body Influences Self-Concept and Self-Incoherence Impairs Episodic Memory."

iScience (@iScience_CP) is an open-access journal from Cell Press that provides a platform for original research and interdisciplinary thinking in the life, physical, and earth sciences. The primary criterion for publication in iScience is a significant contribution to a relevant field combined with robust results and underlying methodology. Visit: To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact

Cell Press

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to