Replicate yourself in the ‘Virtual Identity Lab’

Cognition – the ability to understand and interpret situations - does not operate separately from our physical body, but is somewhere within it, you might say. How the processes of observation and behaviour influence one another is what cognitive psychologist Bernhard Hommel (Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition) and his colleagues will be researching in the Virtual Identity Lab (VIL).

World's first Virtual Identity Lab

Bernhard Hommel

Bernhard Hommel

Researchers from different universities and disciplines will be working together in the Virtual Identity Lab.This is the first centre in the world where new methods (the virtual reconstruction of the 'self') will be used to study 'embodied cognition'. Hommel: ‘The techniques that we will be applying are not new, but the way they are used and the purpose they serve are.'

Virtual copy

The technical aspects and how the research will be organised are in the hands of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC). The behavioural research will be carried out at the Faculty of Science, and the fMRI research at the LUMC. 

NWO is providing € 200,000 for the procurement of a range of different equipment: cameras and sensors to measure eye movements, pupil size, hand movements and posture, and machines to monitor heartbeat, skin conductivity and muscle movements in the face. The face movements are particularly important in analysing human emotions.

Virtual vs reality

Hommel: ‘This equipment will be used to gather as much data as possible so that we can construct a virtual 3D replica of how people experience themselves. We will show this virtual image to them. Our aim is to experiment with manipulating peoples' self-image. We hope this will help us to understand how cognition works when the virtual reality is different from the original or true reality.'

It's like when you look at yourself in a distorting mirror that makes you appear fatter or thinner, or that exaggerates or reduces some part of your body. It forces you to experience your body differently: you 'become' hugely fat, terribly skinny or horribly ugly. What effect does this have on your self-image?'


Once you understand how 'embodied cognition' comes about, you can use this knowledge therapeutically.  A number of researchers are intending to study the self-image of older people by virtually manipulating their speed of movement and their body shape. If their research shows that elderly people acquire a different image of their health and mobility, the method can probably be used therapeutically to help patients suffering from obesity or anorexia. Hommel: ‘We need clinical psychologists to explain how this can be done.  But I am convinced that that this research will open up many possibilities.' 

A further application is to present a virtual image of bottles of water, soft drink and alcohol to alcoholics, where their virtual hand withdraws whenever a bottle containing alcohol appears. This might be a way of getting them to modify their self-image and bring about a change in their behaviour.' 


(16 March 2011)

Last Modified: 25-01-2012