Does Nice or Nasty Matter? The Intensity of Touch Modulates the Rubber Hand Illusion

Front Psychol. 2022 Jun 13;13:901413. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.901413. eCollection 2022.


Our sense of body ownership results from the ongoing integration of perceptual information coming from the different senses (i.e., multisensory integration). The Rubber Hand Illusion (RHI) has been extensively studied to investigate the malleability of body ownership through contrasting multisensory information. Indeed, during the RHI, stroking a visible rubber hand synchronously to participants' hand hidden from sight generates the illusion of ownership of the rubber hand (embodiment) and the mis-location of participants' hand as closer to the rubber hand (proprioceptive drift). It is well known that the RHI is optimally evoked by a pleasant stroking (affective) touch, but what of an unpleasant (painful) stroking touch - does hedonic valence matter? To this aim, participants repeated the RHI while receiving different types of touch: pleasant, painful, and neutral. Results showed, for the first time, that the subjective intensity of the tactile stimulation experienced across the different conditions modulates the strength of the proprioceptive drift. Notably, participants reported a stronger RHI (mis-placed body ownership) from stimulation rated as more intense and involving an interoceptive activation (pain and pleasantness vs. neutral). We propose that interoceptive information, regardless of the valence of the stimuli (positive or negative), are perceived as more intense and enhance, through the activation of the limbic system, multisensory integration. In the context of the RHI, this translates to a stronger illusion in terms of proprioceptive drift.

Keywords: affective touch; body ownership; interoceptive processing; rubber hand illusion; unpleasant touch.