In what could be considered the first steps toward something like Total Recall, researchers at the University of Barcelona in Spain are using virtual reality to study just how attached we are to our bodies, or, even more specifically, our visual gender. For instance, if you looked down right now and appeared to be a woman instead of a man — or vice versa — how would you react? That's the situation 24 men in the study were faced with.
In reality, nothing changed for the men save for the fact that they were wearing a VR headset. What they saw, differed depending on the subject. Some men were in a woman's body, and would look down to see a female figure. Others were voyeuristic presences, drifting behind and to the side of the woman standing there. Then, to test the visceral effects this body-swapping really had, another virtual woman would show up.
At first she was nice and she really wouldn't do much more than reach out and touch the subject's arm (a move that was sometimes accompanied by a real somebody touching the VR-headset-wearing person's arm). Soon after that, the woman would get mean, and would slap the user (who wouldn't really be slapped in reality).
The researchers found that the men really did get into their parts as women, especially around the time of the slap. Some would even move their head or bodies accordingly, and the virtual impact was often accompanied by a marked rise in heart rate.
"If you can temporarily give people the illusion that their bodies are different, then the evidence suggests it also affects their behaviour and the way they think," Mel Slater, a virtual reality researcher, said. They can have new experiences: a person who is thin can know what it's like to be fat. A man can have an experience of what it's like to be a woman."