When you enter a virtual world, you need an avatar—a digital representation of yourself. The avatar allows you to interact within VR. Researchers are finding that the appearance and abilities of VR avatars have surprising impacts on how our brains process pain signals.
In one study, patients with chronic arm pain were given avatars of a healthy, pain-free arm in VR. When the virtual arm performed arm movements without difficulty, the patients felt their real chronic pain decrease.
It appeared the brain was tricked into thinking the pain-free avatar arm was their own real arm.
Other research shows avatars that look like the individual enhance pain relief effects compared to more anonymous avatars. Customizing skin tone, body shape, and facial features strengthens the embodiment experience where the virtual feels like an extension of self. The more believable the avatar, the more the brain incorporates its abilities and lack of pain into our senses.
Avatars can also be strategically altered to influence pain perception. Studies show older adults feel less pain in VR when given a younger avatar.
An avatar engineered to be taller can reduce the perception of pain from uncomfortable Virtual Height Experiences. Amputees given an avatar with a limb have reduced phantom limb pain.
Essentially avatar embodiment impacts how the brain constructs your sense of self in relation to pain. By hacking your virtual appearance and skills, it’s possible to alter painful realities. VR developers are only beginning to explore the possibilities of avatar identity.
Current theories suggest observing an avatar that appears to be overcoming pain or disability in VR promotes cortical reorganization in the brain.
This boosts motor function and reduces pain over time. Avatars may also work by reducing threat perceptions related to pain as the virtual self demonstrates abilities without pain limitations.
The avatar-self connection is critical in VR pain relief. Appearance, abilities, age, and health status all contribute to how strongly the brain incorporates the virtual into one’s sense of self.
This offers exciting opportunities to use avatars to transform chronic pain care. VR developers are just scratching the surface of the potential.