Oxford University researchers have discovered how our brain’s sense of body ownership can be manipulated by illusion.

Scientists from the university conducted a series of experiments incorporating what’s known as ‘the rubber hand illusion’ – a well-known psychological trick in which a participant’s hand is concealed, while a prosthetic hand is placed in their line of vision and stimulated.

The concealed hand and the rubber hand were stroked simultaneously, leading the participant to believe they were experiencing real physical sensations in the prosthetic hand.

As a result, the temperature of the participants’ concealed, real, hand substantially dropped, revealing that the human body will abandon a limb if it believes it has found an adequate replacement.

The researchers were astonished, and say their results show characteristics of the human nervous system never seen before.

“An exciting find”

Professor Charles Spence, from Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, said, “This is an exciting find that will provide a better understanding of the link, demonstrating that the brain is malleable enough to incorporate changes.”

His team’s recently published research, which involved collaboration with other experts from Italy and the Netherlands, has already received a flurry of international praise.

The experiments were intended to replicate distorted perceptions of body ownership reported by patients suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia, autism or strokes.

“This is the first time anyone has looked to see what effect the rubber hand illusion has on people’s own bodies,” commented Prof Spence.

“Studies have been done on patients with schizophrenia and autism, but never on healthy subjects” he said.

Further investigations by specialists into the subject are continuing.