A new study tested what happened to volunteers who saw a virtual image of their own bodies in front of them, along with a visualization of their own heartbeat, and how this all changed their perception of their own bodies.

The study was completed by two researchers, Jane Aspell of the Anglia Ruskin University in the UK and Lukas Heydrich from the Swiss Federal Institute in Lausanne.

Through their study, the researchers demonstrated that being able to view the internal state of the body allows people to experience and connect more with their own body and self. Aspell believes that this method can help change the way that people with disorders like anorexia view their body.

For the study, volunteers were given a head mounted display (HMD), which was referred to as “virtual reality goggles.” The volunteers were able to see their own body in front of them as they were filmed in real time with a video camera connected to the HMD.

The volunteers’ heartbeats were also recorded using electrodes, and linked to superimpose a bright flash over the virtual body for each heartbeat.

"This research demonstrates that the experience of one's self can be altered when presented with information about the internal state of one's body, such as a heartbeat," Aspell noted.

The researchers hope that this method might open possibilities for understanding how people with anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder view and connect with their bodies, and how to change that. Body dysmorphic disorder is a disorder in which an individual is obsessively concerned with his body image and finds his body to have defects, causing psychological distress.

Likewise, according to the National Institutes of Health, anorexia nervosa is a disease in which a person is painfully conscious of his weight while also experiencing a distorted sense of body image.

Aspell notes that people with anorexia have a sort of disconnection from their own physique. "This may be because their brain does not update its representation of the body after losing weight, and the patient is therefore stuck with a perception of a larger self that is out of date," she said.

As the volunteers watched the flash in sync with their heartbeat, they reported that they identified more with the virtual body.

Currently, treatment for anorexia involves both a psychological and physical approach, as dealing with self-image issues is fundamental for these individuals changing their eating habits. Aspell hopes that if this type of experiment could lead people to “reconnect” with their current bodies, it could become a pathway to helping those suffering from body image issues to identify, connect, and understand their bodies.

Source: Aspell J, Heydrich L. Turning body and self inside out: Visualized heartbeats alter bodily self-consciousness and tactile perception. Psychological Science. 2013.