This summer, I went to Towards a Science of Consciousness conference (in Helsinki) which was above-averagely awesome for an academic conference not only because it was in HELSINKI (which is rad) but because, since it was on consciousness, featured an above-averagely diverse crowd including philosophers, neuroscientists, quantum physicists, economists and Deepak Chopra.
To justify the expense of attending a conference in Scandinavia in the days of austerity, I thought (belatedly) to pass along some of what I learned. As well, since this week many are wishing for a revolution in what cognitive scientists politely call social cognition, I thought the research Lara Maister (Royal Halloway, University of London) presented on altering social cognition through manipulating body ownership particularly apt.
"Enfacement," Bodily resonance and Racial Cognition
Maister is an experimental psychologist and her lab explores the extent to which our self-concept and our body-image are malleable or plastic and the ways that this plasticity affects our social cognition. The underlying premise guiding her research is that we essentially resonate with each other. That is, our proprio-ception—our sense of who and where we are—involves hetero-ception. Maister’s research shows that when we see others being touched, our haptic brain parts (my term) are activated as if we were being touched.
There are, according to Meister, lots of ways our brains mirror or resonate with other bodies and lots of (surprising) ways that our sense of self in relation to others can be shifted. Sometimes this phenomenon of bodily resonance helps us to more finely discriminate what is going on with ourselves, as with "visual-haptic remapping." Here's how this works: seeing someone else get touched helps us to recognize (sooner) when we are being (very lightly) touched.
Research suggests that, in some respects, we know what's going on with ourselves by taking (sensory) cues from what is going on with others. But it also seems that this feedback between self-other is dampened with members of outgroups: people we identify as not like ourselves. Race is the important outgroup example in Maister's research (but she mentions others like political affiliation etc).
One hypothesis for why bodily resonance might be dulled with a member of an outgroup is that the proprio-hetero-ceptive link depends upon perceiving likeness or resemblance between self and other. The idea is that we have a harder time resonating with those whom we distinguish visually as not-us. On this hypothesis, the more we physically resemble the more likely we are to intra-neurally assemble.
Interestingly, this hypothesis is not born out by Maister's research. Instead, it seems that the existence and consciousness of outgroups (like racial groups) condition sensorial and perceptual mappings in a top-down fashion. In other words, our social cognition inhibits or dampens (lower-level) bodily resonance. Maister argues, however--and this is the really exciting part of her research--that such top-down inhibition can be overcome by bottom-up manipulations of our proprio-hetero-mappings.
[For a quick synopsis (if you are familiar with the experiment you can skip to the next paragraph), the rubber glove illusion involves getting the research subject to incorporate a latex-gloved faux-hand into her proprioception or body-schema. The gloved faux-hand which she SEES is stroked by a brush in the same way that her real hand (hidden from view) is stroked. The resulting illusion is that the haptic sensation that is actually happening at the subject’s hand appears to her as happening at the gloved –faux hand while her hand appears to her now as the gloved faux-hand.]
The classic rubber glove illusion shows that--under certain conditions-- you can readily incorporate into your own body awarenessparts that aren't yours. Moreover, according to the research of Maister and her colleagues, it appears that you'll have no more trouble incorporating a purple latex glove or a hand that appears to be that of an outgroup member. This kind of induced body ownership does not seem to be constrained by social cognition.
However, it is well established that people do have significant difficulty resonating with people from out groups. We know, for example, that Whites and Blacks see Black and poor people as suffering less pain. Maister's research shows a correlate of this empathic failure in a form of somatosensory resonance: haptic-visual mapping. Caucasians are less likely to be able to use haptic cues on a member of an outgroup's face to haptically discriminate what is happening with themselves. And, Maister's group found, the higher one scored on tests measuring implicit bias, the more likely bodily resonance is dulled.
However, this empathic dampening could be reversed by messing with the kind of "incorporative" processes that make the rubber hand illusion possible. We can learn (and quite easily) to incorporate the face of an other (out group-er) into our own facial self-concept (and in such a way that transforms our own self-recognition). Doing so reduces the resonance-dampening effects of social congition. And we can do the same thing with the entire body--as "body swap" experiments have shown.
I'll end by describing Maister's experiment (and results) in the case of the "enfacement. The Enfacement illusion (like the rubber hand illusion) is designed to stimulate a sense of body ownership over a body part that is not ours: in this case another's face. If top-down social cognition dampens resonance (for Caucasians), Maister's research suggests that inducing the incorporation of another's face (as my own)--via visual-haptic stimulation--"produces a measurable bias in self-face recognition, whereby participants perceive the other’s face as looking more like their own." They found that after submitting to the enfacement illusion, subjects' recognition of the other's emotions improved, with a specific increase in sensitivity to fearful facial expression
Maister’s research is philosophically fascinating: it resonates with claims (familiar to Continental philosophers) about the constitutive role played by The Other in the formation of subjectivity, demonstrates the extent to which proprio-ception is woven with hetero-ception, and points to the plasticity of our self-(other) inter-mappings. Perhaps more unexpectedly, it points to the not-so-distant possibility of a whole set of ameliorative moral therapies/pharmakons that might over-ride, re-program our social cognitions.