A poor human being subjected to a ghostly robot presence... virtually. (Alain Herzog/EPFL)
For the first time, scientists have successfully been able to reproduce a ghostly presence in the lab with a robot. There is a long stem of research into the phenomena of people feeling a strange presence of an entity that was not physically there, such as an angel or a ghost. Particularly, people with neurological conditions like schizophrenia, migraines, and stroke often report feeling a paranormal presence. This phenomena is called FoP.
Professor Olaf Blanke of MD, PhD, from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland has been studying FoP phenomena for some time in patients with neurological conditions. However, he thought he would take some theoretical knowledge further by putting it to the test with a robot.
In Blanke's studies, he was able to link the experience of FoP with patients with neurological damage to three main regions of the brain. . His studies found that, of patients who reported feeling FoP regularly, they mostly had damage to their frontoparietal cortex, temporoparietal cortex, or their insular cortex. These parts of the brain process spatial positioning, self-awareness, and movement. Hence, while most of us can easily distinguish sensations as resulting from our own movement, people with damage to these lobes have trouble distinguishing the sensations caused by their own movements. As a result of a miscommunication of self-awareness, movement, and/or spatial positioning, patients would experience the presence of another human entity that they could not see.
While FoP in patients with neurological damage is documented, people without neurological damage have experienced FoP as well: particularly mountaineers. It seems that anyone in an extreme condition can experience FoP, and FoP is very well documented throughout historical, personal accounts from explorers and mountaineers.
So, Blanke's research found a missing puzzle piece as to how FoP could be induced in subjects without neurological conditions. Blanke set out to create a robot that could mess with participants' perception of self-awareness, spatial positioning, and movement.
The robot is a fairly straightforward master, slave robot. The subject is placed between the master and slave robot blindfolded. Then they must move the master robot (which is like a joystick). As they move the master robot stick, the slave robot mirrors their movements while touching their back. As time elapses, a greater time delay occurs between the master movement data, and the movement of the slave robot. So, the discrepancy between the positioning and movement of the slave robot in relation to the manner in which the subject is moving the master becomes greater. After about 3 minutes, the participants reported feeling FoP. Sometimes they felt it so strongly that they could not continue and reported up to four ghosts in the room, interacting with them.
Not only is this study super cool, and a great trick to play on friends during Halloween, but it can also do some people some good. This research sheds light onto schizophrenia, and perhaps points to new avenues of treatment. If you want more details, Blanke's paper is available here: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2814%2901212-3, featured in the Current Biology journal.
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