SCIENCE

Need Help Working Through A Personal Crisis? Just Pretend You're Freud

WWFS: What would Freud say?

If you're in the midst of a personal crisis and trying to figure out the best solution, here's a trick that just might help you find the answer: Pretend you're Sigmund Freud, and give yourself the same counsel you'd expect to get from the father of psychoanalysis.

That's the idea behind a new University of Barcelona study, which found that a small group of male study participants who adopted Freud's avatar in a virtual reality scenario gave themselves better psychological advice than when the used their own avatars.

"Seeing and interacting with oneself from outside of your own body gives you a different perspective -- it is somehow often easier to solve the problems of a friend than your own -- because you break out of your own boundaries and your familiar ways of thinking about things," study author Dr. Mel Slater, a professor at Barcelona and University College London, told The Huffington Post in an email. 

For the study, which was published online Sept. 10 in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers used "immersive virtual reality." Twenty-two male participants wore virtual reality headsets and were "immersed" in a neutral-looking room with two avatars created in their own likeness. "Embodied" in the first avatar, they would describe a problem. Then, they would switch roles, offering advice back from the second avatar's perspective. The experience of being a "self counsellor" was meant to mimic the way we talk to ourselves in real life.

In a second virtual reality experience, the participants explained their personal problem as their own avatars, but were speaking to an avatar of Freud. Then, the person would switch into Freud's persona to offer advice back. When the participants spoke as Freud, the vocals of their original audio were deepened a pitch so as to sound more like the doctor.

Check out the video below to see how it works. Story continues below. 

In both scenarios, participants reported feeling better about the personal problem. However, when they were embodied in the Freud body, they reported even greater improvements. Presumably, acting as an authority figure rendered them better able to use effective decision-making to work through the problem, and helped them to detach from habitual ways of thinking.

"The self becomes identified with some of the characteristics of the person embodied," Slater said. "In other words, there is a transfer from the body to what the body represents to unlocking some capabilities in the individual subject." 

The study was small, and only looked at men. Slater said researchers chose Freud after asking participants what figure they'd most like to discuss a personal problem with. But even without virtual reality technology, the lessons from this small sample show that it can be beneficial to take on the perspective of an authority figure when giving oneself advice. 

"You can give yourself counseling while embodied in another body talking back to a representation of yourself," Slater said. "This may be useful as a starting point for self-therapy. The one who knows oneself best of all is ourself, and this method gives us an opportunity to step outside ourself, breaking out of our normal ways of thinking associated with the self, but still on the basis of our own self-knowledge."

So the next time you're not sure what to do about a problem at work or in your relationship, try asking yourself, WWFS? -- "What would Freud say?"

CONVERSATIONS