Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 232, Issue 3, pp 875–887 | Cite as

A threat to a virtual hand elicits motor cortex activation

  • Mar González-Franco
  • Tabitha C. Peck
  • Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells
  • Mel SlaterEmail author
Research Article


We report an experiment where participants observed an attack on their virtual body as experienced in an immersive virtual reality (IVR) system. Participants sat by a table with their right hand resting upon it. In IVR, they saw a virtual table that was registered with the real one, and they had a virtual body that substituted their real body seen from a first person perspective. The virtual right hand was collocated with their real right hand. Event-related brain potentials were recorded in two conditions, one where the participant’s virtual hand was attacked with a knife and a control condition where the knife only struck the virtual table. Significantly greater P450 potentials were obtained in the attack condition confirming our expectations that participants had a strong illusion of the virtual hand being their own, which was also strongly supported by questionnaire responses. Higher levels of subjective virtual hand ownership correlated with larger P450 amplitudes. Mu-rhythm event-related desynchronization in the motor cortex and readiness potential (C3–C4) negativity were clearly observed when the virtual hand was threatened—as would be expected, if the real hand was threatened and the participant tried to avoid harm. Our results support the idea that event-related potentials may provide a promising non-subjective measure of virtual embodiment. They also support previous experiments on pain observation and are placed into context of similar experiments and studies of body perception and body ownership within cognitive neuroscience.


Body ownership Rubber hand illusion Virtual reality Motor cortex Pain ERPs 



This study was funded by the European Union FP7 Integrated Project VERE (No. 257695). MGF’s research was supported by the FI-DGR pre-doctorate grant from the Catalan government co-funded by the European Social Fund (EC-ESF). ARF has been supported by a research grant from the Spanish government (PSI2011-29219). The ERC project TRAVERSE (#227985) also contributed towards this research.

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (MPG 12188 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mar González-Franco
    • 1
    • 5
  • Tabitha C. Peck
    • 1
  • Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells
    • 2
    • 3
  • Mel Slater
    • 1
    • 2
    • 4
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Event Lab, Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatments, Faculty of PsychologyUniversity of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA)BarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Cognition and Brain Plasticity Group, Department of Basic Psychology, Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL)University of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  4. 4.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  5. 5.IR3C Institute for Brain, Cognition and BehaviourUniversity of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

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