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Scientists in Switzerland are using technology to improve the understanding of consciousness...
For fans of creaky 1992 Pierce Brosnan movie The Lawnmower Man, a research project in Switzerland should strike a chord.
However, unlike the film - in which the local odd-job man becomes a threat to mankind as the result of virtual reality experiments aimed at boosting intelligence - the research project at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is looking at the effect virtual reality has on people's perceptions of themselves and their bodies.
Neurologist at the EPFL's Brain Mind Institute, Professor Olaf Blanke is leading the Real Avatar project to improve understanding of self-awareness through cognitive science, virtual reality and brain-imaging technology.
Subjects are immersed in the body of an avatar using a virtual reality headset and their brain electrical activity is monitored by electrodes fitted to a skullcap, shown above, as they are exposed to different 3D environments controlled by the researchers.
The work is building on clinical studies of neurological patients who have reported out-of-body experiences. These episodes often show themselves through increased activity in the temporoparietal and frontal regions of the brain that translate touch and vision into coherent perception.