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Invisibility Cloak Makes Social Anxiety Disappear

Image: Invisibility Cloak Study

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 (right). To evoke the illusion, the experimenter touches the participant’s body with the large paintbrush while, with another paintbrush held in the other hand, exactly imitating the movements in mid-air in full view of the participant. Staffan Larsson

Is public speaking your biggest fear? Ever wish you could just disappear when you’re forced out in front of a crowd? Now you can.

A team of Swedish scientists has set up a virtual reality experiment that can trick people into feeling as if they were invisible. Then they set them up in front of a skeptical-looking crowd.

When people could see themselves in front of the audience, their heart rates and breathing went up —sure signs of anxiety. They also said they felt anxious. But when they wore the virtual reality headsets and felt invisible, they felt less anxious, Arvid Guterstam and colleagues at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm reported.

"Owning an invisible body reduces the social anxiety."

“We measured heart rate and subjectively perceived stress in response to a socially stressful stimuli (standing in front of an audience) and found that owning an invisible body reduces the social anxiety associated with this situation,” they wrote in Nature Scientific Reports.

“The crowd comprised of 11 lab group members who were instructed to put on a skeptical and serious-looking face and look directly toward the position of the cameras.”

The experiment, using 125 volunteers, was fairly simple. They had the volunteers wear a headset that projected an image from cameras pointed at nothing.

“To induce the illusion, the experimenter stroked the participant’s body with a large paintbrush while simultaneously moving another paintbrush in the corresponding location in the empty space below the cameras, as if he were touching an ‘invisible body’ that was in this location,” they wrote.

It’s not just a fun experiment — it might be used as therapy to help people cope with anxiety, they said.

People scared to speak in public are often coached to imagine the audience all wearing underwear. Maybe virtually stripping down yourself could help even more.