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Seeing an Embodied Virtual Hand is Analgesic Contingent on Colocation

  • Birgit Nierula
    Correspondence
    ; and Birgit Nierula, IDIBAPS, Villarroel 170, Barcelona 08036, Spain.
    Affiliations
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain

    Event-Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
    Search for articles by this author
  • Matteo Martini
    Affiliations
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain

    Event-Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
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  • Marta Matamala-Gomez
    Affiliations
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain

    Event-Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
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  • Mel Slater
    Affiliations
    Event-Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

    ICREA, Barcelona, Spain
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  • Maria V. Sanchez-Vives
    Correspondence
    Address reprint requests to Maria V. Sanchez-Vives, MD, PhD, Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Rosselló 149-153, Barcelona 08036, Spain.
    Affiliations
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain

    Event-Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

    ICREA, Barcelona, Spain

    Department of Basic Psychology, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
    Search for articles by this author
Published:January 17, 2017DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2017.01.003

      Highlights

      • Seeing your embodied virtual body in virtual reality increases pain threshold.
      • To increase pain threshold your virtual and real body should be colocated.
      • For the arm, this analgesic effect diminishes when there are 30 cm between the virtual and real arm.

      Abstract

      Seeing one's own body has been reported to have analgesic properties. Analgesia has also been described when seeing an embodied virtual body colocated with the real one. However, there is controversy regarding whether this effect holds true when seeing an illusory-owned body part, such as during the rubber-hand illusion. A critical difference between these paradigms is the distance between the real and surrogate body part. Colocation of the real and surrogate arm is possible in an immersive virtual environment, but not during illusory ownership of a rubber arm. The present study aimed at testing whether the distance between a real and a virtual arm can explain such differences in terms of pain modulation. Using a paradigm of embodiment of a virtual body allowed us to evaluate heat pain thresholds at colocation and at a 30-cm distance between the real and the virtual arm. We observed a significantly higher heat pain threshold at colocation than at a 30-cm distance. The analgesic effects of seeing a virtual colocated arm were eliminated by increasing the distance between the real and the virtual arm, which explains why seeing an illusorily owned rubber arm does not consistently result in analgesia. These findings are relevant for the use of virtual reality in pain management.

      Perspective

      Looking at a virtual body has analgesic properties similar to looking at one's real body. We identify the importance of colocation between a real and a surrogate body for this to occur and thereby resolve a scientific controversy. This information is useful for exploiting immersive virtual reality in pain management.

      Key words

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