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Swedish scientists help people 'feel like Barbie'

Rebecca Martin · 27 May 2011, 12:20

Published: 27 May 2011 12:20 GMT+02:00

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“Both illusions were cool, but if I have to choose which one I preferred, I would have to say the Barbie,” Björn van der Hoort, neurologist at Karolinska Institutet, told The Local.

In the experiment, 198 people were shown images of a doll – a Barbie-sized one and a giant one – having their legs stroked. At the same time the subject’s legs were stroked – causing the illusion that what they saw was what they felt.

After that the subjects were asked to estimates the size of differently sized blocks and then walk over these with their eyes shut.

The result showed that for the subjects touched as a Barbie-doll, the blocks were estimated as very large.

Where the 4–metre doll had been used the blocks were perceived as tiny. The distances between the blocks were over- and under-estimated in a similar manner.

The experiment indicates that how we perceive size and distance is universal and almost all test subjects had the same experience.

“It is a really strong illusion, even when you know that you are being fooled you still believe it," said van der Hoort.

The conclusion is that we all use our bodies as reference points to which we compare everything around us, a behaviour that most likely stems from evolution according to van der Hoort.

“There was a time when we didn’t care about measuring distances in metres but instead cared about how many steps it would take for us to reach something or how far apart we had to hold our hands to grasp something. The body was compared to the world we had to interact with," van der Hoort said.

This also brings light to the quite common phenomenon when a place often frequented as a child seems much smaller then remembered when you return as an adult.

“We think this is why, that when you were a child you compared the dimensions of the place to your small body and now you have a big body – which changes your perception of the dimensions,” he said.

Although the research is still in its fundamental stages, it opens up for the possibility of developing fields like robotics, according to van der Hoort.

“Today when we operate a robot, for example to repair an oil-rig deep under the sea or perhaps cleaning a power plant, we push buttons and pull levers, but our research can change that,“ he said.

Story continues below…

In the future it may be possible for the robot’s operator to really feel he is the robot, on site, doing the work. Another future application could be a surgeon "becoming’ a tiny robot and walking into someone’s ear performing surgery", although such developments are at east 10-15 years away, according to van der Hoort.

“But when it is developed it will make science more intuitive and more efficient, we think," he told The Local.

The findings have been published in online scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Rebecca Martin (rebecca.martin@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

14:09 May 27, 2011 by Nemesis
Why would anyone want to think they are a barbie doll?
14:24 May 27, 2011 by JLondon
hahaha there are lots of them in Nacka!
14:32 May 27, 2011 by Syftfel
Does this theory also cross the gender lines?
14:37 May 27, 2011 by gorgepir
This is like the tenth time I have read about this exact same experiment done at different research institutes. All had the same outcome. I just dont understand how it is news... Should have guessed before I clicked.

I am amazed at how such non-novel research is interesting for people.
18:11 May 27, 2011 by Grandson of Swedish Emigrants
So if I get my girlfriend to look at a Barbie while stroking her leg and then later ask her to estimate the size of my (you know what), she will think that I am hung like a porn star.

Hmm ...this experiment sounds like it has positive social/societal applications. Money for research well spent (NOT!!!)
19:45 May 27, 2011 by Frank Arbach
... don't think the research is going to win a Nobel prize - but could be wrong
06:16 May 28, 2011 by foordranata
Aima paapi kööl, in tö paapi vöö-ööld...

I´ll tell you a secret. (very forbidden) Your friend has a hiccup. Ask him to face you at a table. Tell him to place his hands on the table and to spread his fingers.

Place your hands opposite his touching his middle fingers with yours.

Then mutter something for a minute, look ominous, look thoughtful, as if something´s about to happen or whatever.

Ask your friend if he´s still got the hiccup.

But I suppose everyone knows allready, damn!
09:02 May 28, 2011 by Luke R D
Well, the usefulness of these experiments depends on who you are. If you're a leading researcher into mind manipulation and techniques to really master how to control someone by altering what they see and think, then perhaps these experiments are rather useful, actually.

Sweden, at the forefront of this stuff, my friend, let me tell you.
09:22 May 31, 2011 by Gash
"There was a time when we didn't care about measuring distances in metres but instead cared about how many steps it would take for us to reach something..."

Wow... Now we're so close to understanding why a foot is a foot! But it will take more research...

Sweden, at the forefront of this stuff, my friend, let me tell you.

What's with the Barbie-dolls anyway? Why not Action Joe or Big Jim? Their feet are more obvious.
23:40 June 2, 2011 by philster61
Maybe they could help us feel like a scientist at the Karolinska Institute...
03:04 June 4, 2011 by MichiganLady

But at least the actual research was marginally less ridiculous than the headline made it sound.

STILL. I keep hanging around this place in morbid curiosity, hoping to find out that Sweden is way less ridiculous than theLocal makes it sound week after week. *sheesh*
02:12 June 11, 2011 by Tsivertsen
@gorgepir The fact that you read an article somewhere does not make Me know about it. I need to read it myself to be informed. So it's cool someone takes the time to report on this. You and I are Not connected telepathically, regardless of what you think.
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