Rubber Hands

This is tough to see when some completely accepted bit of science seems to be in error.

Apparently the Rubber Hand Illusion experiment may have been wildly misinterpreted.

In the illusion synchronous brush strokes on a participant’s concealed hand and a visible fake hand can give the impression of illusory sensations of touch and of ownership of the fake hand. The paper has been widely cited and is a sort of foundation on thinking about how people perceive their bodies.

The problem is that the illusion may result from suggestion. What’s more, suggestion may be skewing results in numerous other psychological experiments. Hypnosis, known formally since the 18th century and used by shamans for thousands of years before that, still isn’t understood. Nor is the power of suggestibility and placebos.


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7 Responses to Rubber Hands

  1. Marilyn Morrison says:

    I guess I don’t put an enormous amount of thought in most situations. I have had many sessions of hypnosis in prior years and found each one to have merit in some way. The most beneficial sessions were from a young man who somehow intuitively knew how to gently assist me in unraveling old trauma. Each session helped to eliminate some of the aftereffects of early trauma. Was it a huge shift? No. Was it beneficial at the time? Most certainly. Sometimes change or growth needs small incremental doses of understanding from a caring practitioner, whatever that therapy happens to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. James Cross says:

    I also have had some experience with a hypnotherapist. I thought I would be difficult to hypnotize but apparently not.

    I think actually much of our life is almost a hypnosis with our seeing and believing the things we’ve been conditioned to see and believe. And ignoring the things that don’t fit into our system.

    I’m not sure I remember this correctly but I thought I heard of an experiment years ago where a group of people were asked about a hole in the wall. There wasn’t a hole but many of the members of the group were plants who were supposed to say there was a hole. The majority of the other people who were the subjects, after the experiment was over, were convinced there had been a hole in the wall.

    So was there a hole? How many holes are we seeing that aren’t there and how many are we ignoring that are?


  3. Interesting. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of fallout results. But in most of the stuff where I’ve seen these studies cited, they’re just one of a number of effects considered. I guess others may be subject to the same vulnerability, but one of the most striking: phantom limbs, seem decidedly real. (Amputees suffered from phantom limbs long before psychology testing methodologies existed.) V. S. Ramachandran seemed able to use something like the rubber hand effect to provide relief for phantom limb sufferers. Although maybe it was a placebo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Unfortunately placebo effects are probably more subtle and widespread than we usually appreciate. It seems a powerful counter argument against anybody who thinks consciousness is an epiphenomenon, although proponents of that view can probably still make some convoluted argument for that view.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It seems to me that Dr. Lush may have gotten overly liberal by invoking what us non-scientists refer to as “hypnosis”. As most people think of this, and I think as Marylyn and James referenced above, hypnosis refers to an altered state of consciousness by which a given subject tends to believe outside suggestion substantially more than otherwise. I consider this extremely similar to a dream state.

    The rubber hand illusion however does not concern an altered state of consciousness (or at least that I know of). Yes there is the “suggestion” that the rubber hand is your own hand, but they reference two very different situations. Unless I’m completely missing something, this seems to be yet another example of psychologists chasing their tails.

    What’s needed in the field, I think, is a broad general model of our nature which helps account for both altered state and non altered state influences. But how might someone with such a model effectively provide it, given that these sorts of distractions get so much attention in the field?

    To me the following seems common sense: If a rubber hand has been demonstrated to be my own hand, then if it’s smacked with a hammer, I should tend to be alarmed by such an event in both conscious and non-conscious ways. I’d confidently dismiss any model which suggests that no alarm should be observed. Dr. Lush however is speculating that the results of alarm are biased.


    • James Cross says:

      I think the difference between hypnosis and a suggestive state, not formally hypnosis but in a laboratory setting, isn’t all that different. We know people in lab settings will do all sorts of things they might not otherwise. See the Milgram experiment which is nominally about obedience to authority but might also be primarily about suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree about experimental suggestion James, but who wouldn’t? What controversy would there be if Dr. Lush were merely suggesting that experimental conditions tend to harbor various suggestive biases? That’s first year stuff. But am I right that he’s implying that experimenters haven’t properly controlled for experimental coaching which may have been causing the participants to behave as they do? And is his evidence of this potential failure, merely that people who read about these experiments and watch an associated video, say that they believe they’d act similarly if they were in such a situation? That’s my own interpretation, but if not, what’s his evidence?

    I’d like to see him try to do the experiment in a way which suggests that we don’t consider the rubber hand to be our own on some level once we’ve been properly conditioned. If objectively confirmed enough times and with enough scrutiny, that’s when I’d open the door to experimental influences being substantially responsible for past observed behavior. At the moment however this situation helps confirm my general thesis — these soft sciences need help!


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