The word of Freud

Last week it was published a new and exciting study about inner speech. The authors utilized virtual reality – a system that provokes the perceptual illusion of being physically present in a non-physical world (Osimo, Pizarro, Spanlang, & Slater, 2015). The study investigated whether self-counseling experiences (that is, explaining a problem and giving advices to yourself) differ depending on whether you have the perception of being talking to yourself, or whether you have the perception of being talking to an expert counselor. The authors report that, to choose an identity of the expert counselor, they did some kind of survey at the university campus, and it turned out that male students would mainly prefer to discuss personal problems with Angelina Jolie, Nelson Mandela, or Sigmund Freud. So, dr. Freud was selected as the expert counselor avatar.

Participants were told to either (a) explain their problems to themselves, or (b) explain a personal problem to Freud. When they finished, they were moved into the other person’s body (themselves or Freud), and they were asked to offer some advice to that problem. After this, participants were moved back to the original body (themselves again), and listened to the advice that they provided while being in the other body.

When participants discussed the problem with Freud, mood improvements were stronger than when participants discussed with themselves. The authors discussed this result as an effect of perspective taking – or the benefits of creating an emotional distance to our own personal problems – and self-processing. They suggest that being embodied in a body different to our own might affect environmental perception, attitudes, or self-identity. Overall, results have interesting clinical implications, since there might exist some parallels between the aforementioned body ownership illusion and psychotherapeutic approaches like the ‘empty chair technique’.

Next time something is bothering us, we can ask Freud and listen what he has to say. Picture from wikipedia:

Next time something is bothering us, we can ask Freud and listen what he has to say. Picture from wikipedia:

The only one thing that I was missing in the study is a qualitative description of the inner speech in the two situations. For instance, it could be the case that, when participants talk to themselves, they might use non-adaptive ways to face a problem –i.e., rumination, self criticism, or self-pity – more often than when they are obliged to give advice to themselves as if they were Freud. And conversely, it could be possible that the conversations with the Freud avatar are richer in problem-solving strategies and in the search for different solutions to a certain problem.

Despite not reporting a qualitative analysis of the conversations, the authors do provide some examples of the inner speeches. I was kinda hoping that they would report some Freudian-like conversation, like, “Hey, dr. Freud, I’m dating a girl who looks exactly like my mum’s clone, do you think it’s normal?”. Instead, the conversations were pretty conventional, covering, for example, discussions with a demanding boss.

Maybe next time that something is bothering you, you can try to imagine that you are talking with somebody you admire (I always wanted to meet Frida Kahlo in my imaginary world). Maybe, a similar psychological mechanism that the one described in Osimo and cols. paper, also takes place when people engage in intimate talks or perform rituals to communicate with the God they believe in. Nevertheless, I think that the important message here is that, a number of times, the solution to our problems is in our own brain. Maybe we need some cognitive strategy to facilitate the process. Sometimes it’s useful to stop thinking negative, take care of ourselves by placing emotional distance to the problem, and avoid ruminating over and over again. And, of course, if negativity has already invaded our body and looks like it is there to stay, we can also ask Freud, and listen to what he has to say.


Osimo, S. A., Pizarro, R., Spanlang, B., & Slater, M. (2015). Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud—A virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling. Scientific Reports, 5(July), 13899. doi:10.1038/srep13899

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