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Journal Article

Seeing an embodied virtual hand is analgesic contingent on colocation

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Nierula, B., Martini, M., Matamala-Gomez, M., Slater, M., & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2017). Seeing an embodied virtual hand is analgesic contingent on colocation. The Journal of Pain, 18(6), 645-655. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2017.01.003.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0002-BBDD-3
Seeing one's own body has been reported to have analgesic properties. Analgesia has also been described when seeing an embodied virtual body colocated with the real one. However, there is controversy regarding whether this effect holds true when seeing an illusory-owned body part, such as during the rubber-hand illusion. A critical difference between these paradigms is the distance between the real and surrogate body part. Colocation of the real and surrogate arm is possible in an immersive virtual environment, but not during illusory ownership of a rubber arm. The present study aimed at testing whether the distance between a real and a virtual arm can explain such differences in terms of pain modulation. Using a paradigm of embodiment of a virtual body allowed us to evaluate heat pain thresholds at colocation and at a 30-cm distance between the real and the virtual arm. We observed a significantly higher heat pain threshold at colocation than at a 30-cm distance. The analgesic effects of seeing a virtual colocated arm were eliminated by increasing the distance between the real and the virtual arm, which explains why seeing an illusorily owned rubber arm does not consistently result in analgesia. These findings are relevant for the use of virtual reality in pain management. Perspective Looking at a virtual body has analgesic properties similar to looking at one's real body. We identify the importance of colocation between a real and a surrogate body for this to occur and thereby resolve a scientific controversy. This information is useful for exploiting immersive virtual reality in pain management.