There was an intriguing article in the New York Times today about a Swedish research team that has been doing experiments with giving people the illusion of swapping bodies with someone else:
"The technique is simple. A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body.
To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other’s hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and “feel” the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete. In a series of studies, using mannequins and stroking both bodies’ bellies simultaneously, the Karolinska researchers have found that men and women say they not only feel they have taken on the new body, but also unconsciously cringe when it is poked or threatened."
While they caution that people who are already mentally disturbed might be harmed by trying this out, they also point out that this is a very powerful way for someone to take another's perspective, and perhaps gain some insight.
It's a fascinating validation of what we already see happening in video games. Players project themselves into their avatars, seeing through their eyes in the game world and taking actions within the physical constraints of this 'borrowed' body, reacting intuitively to what happens to their character as gameplay unfolds. It suggests that, once games have more powerful and nuanced social interactions built into them, we have an extremely powerful empathy generating medium on our hands.