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Feeling flat? You may think you're a table
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 04/06/2003)

People can be persuaded to feel like a table, according to a bizarre experiment that sheds new light on body image disorders such as anorexia.

Scientists have already reported on one odd illusion that occurs when a person cannot see their own hand but can see a rubber hand placed next to them on a table.

When both are tapped and stroked in a sequence simultaneously, the subject experiences the illusion that the touch sensation came from the fake hand.

Prof Vilayanur Ramachandran and Dr Carrie Armel of the University of California, San Diego, took the experiment one step further and simply stroked the table in precise synchrony.

"To our astonishment, subjects often reported sensations arising from the table surface, despite the fact that it bears no visual resemblance to a hand," they report today in the Proceedings B journal of the Royal Society.

"The interesting thing is that this bizarre perception of assimilating a table into one's own body image is so resistant to the person's knowledge of the absurdity of the situation," said Dr Armel.

The work shows that body image is not "hard-wired" but a malleable and continually updated "temporary shell" based on information from vision and touch.

The scientists believe the findings may have implications for helping those with body image disorders such as anorexia nervosa. "The more we can understand how these processes work, the more we can develop ways of improving people's own body image," said Dr Armel.

Related reports  

External links  
Proceedings B Journal of the Royal Society
University of California
The Psychology of Self Image - About Psychology