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Scientists suggest invisibility as a cure for anxiety

Neuroscientists have made the surprise discovery that the sensation of invisibly reduces responses to anxiety.

Have you ever felt fear and anxiety from standing in front of a large audience and giving a speech? Or how about having to get up in class and talk to other students? While it's normal in situations like these to wish for the ground to swallow you up, some scientists have suggested a slightly different remedy for anxiety - invisibility.

Invisibility has long featured in myths and fiction, but several advances in material sciences have demonstrated that the cloaking of large (living) objects - just like how the invisibility cloak works in Harry Potter - is becoming a realistic prospect. In the field of material sciences, the general concept of invisibility cloaking is actually fairly simple.

Theoretically, all that's needed is a material that guides visible light (or another wave, like EM waves or heat fluxaround an object, and anything within the gap it leaves will be rendered "invisible" to someone standing at the light source:

Light moves around the object (or person) as though it isn't there. Image: Trevor Johnston/trevorjohnston.com

In practice, this is hard to achieve, as most naturally occurring materials reflect light, cast shadows and produce a reflection. However, hi-tech and exotic materials called "metamaterials" have made light bending possible. (Although latest research suggest that ordinary lenses can do just the trick!)

H G Wells, a man ahead of his time, wrote the The Invisible Man in 1897. The novel is about a protagonist who invents a method to change the human body’s refractory index to that of the air, rendering it invisible. (The twist comes when he performs the method on himself and can’t reverse it - but that’s beside the point.) The refractive index is the ratio between how light passes through a vacuum, and how it passes through any other medium; it’s the reason a spoon will look bent when placed in a glass of water. If water has a negative refractive index, the spoon would look as though as was bending back on itself instead.

In a recent paper in Scientific Reports, graduate students Arvid Guterstam and Zakaryah Abdulkarim and their advisor Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscience professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, said they believe invisibility cloaking of the human body is a thing of the future, and believe it’s high time we delve into what it feels like to be invisible.

To do this, Guterstam, Abdulkarim, and Ehrsson used virtual reality. In one of their experiments, 23 people were provided with a set of head-mounted displays (HMD), and were asked to look at their feet. The experimenter - Abdulkarim - stroked their arms, legs, and torso with a paintbrush with one hand, and at the same time, made identical motions with a second paintbrush with the other hand, on an invisible body or a mannequin. A pair of downward-facing cameras that were either mounted on a tripod or on the head of a mannequin sent a real-time video feed to the participants HMDs, giving them the sensation of being invisible, or making a body swap with a mannequin:

Study co-author Zakaryah Abdulkarim (middle) creates the invisible body illusion on a participant (left) wearing a set of head-mounted displays connected to a pair of cameras. Photo: Staffan Larsson

Here's the surprise: after finishing with the paintbrush, each participant slowly lifted their gaze through their HMDs to find that they were being watched by a scornful-looking audience (consisting of 11 scientists instructed to stare at the participant). Quite creepy, and perhaps enough to through most people off - however, on a 100-point scale, participants reported their stress level as about 25 per cent lower, on average, when in a state of invisibility, and about a third less than in the mannequin version. The state of invisibility also lowered heart rates by a few beats per minute, suggesting that stress is intertwined with physiology.

The researchers write: “Our results demonstrate that healthy individuals can experience the illusion of owning an invisible full body." They suggest their results could spur on better a design for virtual-reality based therapies for social anxiety, and may also help give neuroscientists gain new insight into phantom limb illusions.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times