A central feature of being human is to recognize that we have a self. Researchers from Munich want to find out how our interactions with others influence this self-experience. By simulating social interactions in virtual reality environments, they are hoping to gain new insights into social impairments and even psychiatric disorders.
By Marie-Luise Brandi
Knowing that we have a self differentiates humans from many other living beings. When interacting with the environment we sense that our actions are our own and that they have an effect on our surroundings. This sense of agency – to feel in control – is an essential component of self-experience. Mental disorders like schizophrenia can disturb this feeling, leading to a sensation of detachment and unreality.
In a recent review, published in the journal i-com, researchers from the Independent Max-Planck-Research group of Social Neuroscience focused on the close relation between social interactions and the experience of one’s self. By interacting with people – via words, eye contact or otherwise – we perceive that our actions have an effect on others.
To study this sense of social agency, computer-controlled simulations, like virtual realities, can be helpful. Today it is possible to simulate different environments with increasingly realistic interaction partners. By changing the behaviour of these interaction partners, the researchers hope to find out how self-experiences are influenced by social exchange.
According to the scientists, these approaches could be useful in the future – not only to study the healthy self, but also to understand psychiatric disorders, which are often characterized by self-disorders, social impairments and difficulties in social interactions.
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