That which is seen, unseen

That which is seen, unseen

Today's post is by Prabarna Ganguly, a Ph.D. student in the Psychology Department at Northeastern University. Take it away, Prabarna!

As a child of 13, I waited for my letter to the magical unseen place called Hogwarts, where I could finally exist in the midst of a life I considered my destiny. Scenes of flying broomsticks and cloaks that converted you into shimmering nothingness floated through my daydreams. But before J.K. came Rowling into our hearts and minds, the Middle Ages gave us a simple, yet strict recipe for becoming invisible.

If you wish to be invisible, take a dog, check that it be deceased, bury it, plant a bean plant over it, then place one in your mouth, and there is no doubt that you shall become the unseen!”

I am grateful my 13-year-old self did not come across such a recipe, for the result can only be dreamt in the form of nightmares. No, there is a better, or rather, a more scientifically sophisticated way of turning oneself invisible, and it requires nothing more than a person using a head-mounted display, paintbrushes, a mannequin, and empty space.

Arvid Guterstam, along with members from the Ehrsson lab at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, made people feel as if they were invisible

For the whole-body illusion, participants were given a visual display of an empty space that corresponded to the space their body was in. The experimenter stroked the participant’s body while simultaneously stroking the corresponding region in the empty space, with a paintbrush. Volunteers found themselves attributing strokes on the invisible region to their own body. Interestingly, the participants also felt less anxious while “invisible,” even with an audience watching. While speculated previously, this is one of the first experiments to show significant physical and psychological responses to the feeling of invisibility.

Although these results suggest that the subjective experience of invisibility can have positive effects, the authors were wary of their results. They questioned the possible moral dilemmas of a future in which the phenomenon of invisibility was commonplace. Such trepidation is not without fictional support. Most literary arguments regarding this matter revolve around the dangers of such power. For example, Plato’s Ring of Gyges or The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy show us how dangerous the powerful of conferring invisibility is; even for those with a strong moral compass. 

These fictitious examples might seem a part of the bygone days, but the realization of experiments show perhaps imperceptible, but indubitable steps towards a functioning invisibility method whose consequences will most likely be explored by future generations. 

For who could have imagined that a mental construct such as the concept of invisibility would become such an integral part of our social and psychological world? But alas, unless Marty and Doc unveil the I-Cloak device, for now, my 13-year-old dream self can only dream of someday having the mischief managed!

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