Virtual reality (VR) is proving to be more than just a tool for gaming and entertainment; it’s becoming a valuable asset in scientific research and medicine. Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, have delved into human perception using VR and uncovered a fascinating phenomenon they describe as a “phantom touch illusion.” Led by Dr. Artur Pilacinski and Professor Christian Klaes from the Department of Neurotechnology, the study sheds light on the intricacies of how our brains interpret virtual interactions with our bodies.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports in September 2023, the study involved subjects interacting with their own bodies using virtual objects in VR scenarios. Surprisingly, the participants reported experiencing a tingling sensation at the exact spot where the virtual object made contact, despite there being no physical interaction. Pilacinski explains, “People in virtual reality sometimes have the feeling that they are touching things, although they are actually only encountering virtual objects.”

The researchers termed this phenomenon the “phantom touch illusion.” Participants commonly described the sensation as tingling, prickling, electrifying, or akin to the feeling of wind passing through their hand. What intrigued the scientists was that this illusion persisted even when subjects touched parts of their bodies not visible in virtual reality.

Marita Metzler, the second author, highlights the study’s implication that human perception and body sensation rely on a complex combination of various sensory perceptions and the internal representation of our bodies, extending beyond just visual cues.

The study involved 36 volunteers wearing VR glasses. They acclimated to the virtual environment by interacting with virtual objects and were then tasked with touching their virtual hand using a virtual stick. The consistent reporting of a tingling sensation by participants sparked curiosity among researchers.

A control experiment using a laser pointer instead of virtual objects did not elicit the phantom touch illusion, reinforcing that this phenomenon was unique to virtual touch. The researchers envision that this discovery could pave the way for further research into human perception and find applications in the realms of virtual reality and medicine.

Christian Klaes, from Ruhr University’s Research Department of Neuroscience, anticipates that the exploration of the phantom touch illusion could deepen our understanding of neurological diseases affecting the perception of one’s own body. The research team is set to collaborate with the University of Sussex to delve deeper into the underlying processes of this intriguing phenomenon. Pilacinski emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between actual sensations of phantom touch and other cognitive processes, paving the way for exciting developments in the field.

By Impact Lab