Scientists in Switzerland are using ghosts to battle the effects of some mental disorders. Okay, not Patrick-Swayze-and-the-pottery-wheel ghosts, or even throw-a-sheet-over-me-and-call-me-spooky ghosts like Casper, but instead the sort of ghostly touch we get when someone pokes us without our realizing it.
Drawing off the theory that we can’t tickle ourselves because, duh, we see it coming, lead researcher Olaf Blanke and his team studied brain scans of subjects with neurological issues who claimed to experience spectral touching. They found all the patients shared issues in the regions of the brain that control movement, spatial positioning, and self-awareness, all of which create multisensory signal processing, or, basically, a sense of being aware of outside stimuli.
By blindfolding normal subjects and blocking their hearing, Blanke et. al. had them manipulate a robotic device that would duplicate their motions with an “arm” behind them, which would then touch the subject when they directed it to. Blanke found that so long as the touch came at the precise moment as it was directed to, the synchronicity made it as though the subject was touching themselves with their own appendage.
But by varying the timing even ever so slightly, by just a few milliseconds, the stimulus changed and became foreign seeming, or “ghostly.” So ghostly, that some of the individuals tested attested they felt as though there was another “presence” in the room with them.
Essentially, Blanke was creating the same sensation felt by those with mental disorders in healthy subjects. But it’s not his goal to make the sane feel crazy. Quite the opposite.
“We are very interested in pursuing this line of work to build similar robotic devices based on our prototype that do not induce psychotic symptoms in healthy subjects but a similar robot that could be used to down regulate psychotic symptoms in actual patients,” he told Reuters.
Blanke wants to make much smaller, portable units, preferably built into a textile of some type for use with clothing that could be worn on a regular basis by the mentally unwell.
By wearing these technologically possessed garments, capable of reproducing the phantom poking, the goal would be getting the wearer used to such a sensation, and hopefully then regulating a part of their psychosis.
Or, as Blanke put it very confusingly:
“So this is something that the patient will have maybe inserted in his clothes; smart textiles in a way. And should there be strong manifestations in this case, one could provide feedback in a way that is now not optimized to induce such a psychotic state but to dis-regulate or to down-regulate such a state.”
One step closer to singularity—but at least the research is helping out this time.