Man walking past invisible bodies. Photo: Getty Images
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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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile