Aside from just being cool and spooky, this study could have real implications for how science understands schizophrenia. It’s possible that the signal confusion Rognini describes could account for some symptoms schizophrenia patients experience—like feeling as though they’re being controlled by an alien presence, for example. That’s why the researchers’ next steps are to get schizophrenia patients to try out the robot, and see if the effect it produces feels similar to their symptoms.
It also reveals something interesting about consciousness in general—that it’s not necessarily a given that our brains always understand what our bodies are doing, or even that they’re our bodies. “The brain has multiple representations of the body,” Rognini says, “and these are usually integrated together and give us a unitary experience of the body and self in space and time. We show that when there is some damage to the brain or some trick played by a robot, a second representation of our body arises in a way that gets perceived by us but not as our body but as the presence of another human being. Physically this presence is already hidden inside our minds.”