“Rubber Hand Illusion” Could Help People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Mon, October 25, 2021

“Rubber Hand Illusion” Could Help People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic disorder in which a person has reoccurring and uncontrollable thoughts, obsessions, or behaviors that he or she feels the need to repeat over and over / Photo by: Andriy Popov via 123RF


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic disorder in which a person has reoccurring and uncontrollable thoughts, obsessions, or behaviors that he or she feels the need to repeat over and over, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, a scientific organization of the United States focused on the understanding and treatment of mental disorders.

Understanding OCD and How It Is Treated

The symptoms of OCD can interfere with the person’s aspects of life, such as personal relationships, school, and work. For instance, they have repeated thoughts that cause them anxiety. Some of the common symptoms include aggressive thoughts towards self or others, fear of contamination or germs, unwanted taboo or forbidden thoughts involving, religion, sex, or harm, and having things in perfect or symmetrical order.

Typically, OCD is treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. During the therapy, patients undergo what is called the “exposure and response prevention,” wherein they touch contaminated surfaces, like the toilet, and are asked not to wash their hands for a certain time. This experience can, however, be stressful for many patients that it ends up not feasible or effective for them.

The Use of Rubber Hand Illusion

A team of researchers from the UK and USA recently suggested that the use of rubber hand illusion can help people overcome their condition without undergoing the stress of exposure therapy. Instead of asking the patients to dirty their own hands, the researchers used a fake or rubber hand instead. This procedure is referred to as multisensory stimulation therapy.

Their study, which appeared in the medical platform Medical Xpress, detailed that they instructed their test subjects to place both their hands on a table in front of them. The trick was that there was a partition in the table, such that the patients only saw the fake hand and their right hand was hidden. Then, the experimenter or the illusionist stroked both the hidden and the fake hand using a paintbrush. Results of the experiment show that, after a few minutes or multisensory stimulation, the patient reported “feeling” touch from the fake hand as if it was their real hand.

How Effective Is Rubber Hand Illusion?

They added that in patients with psychiatric conditions, including body dysmorphic disorder and schizophrenia, the rubber hand illusion works because the body image they held in their minds is more malleable compared to mentally healthy individuals.

In most cases, the illusion is only effective in mentally healthy people if both the fake and real hands are stroked in synchrony. If the stroke is asynchronous, the illusion disappears or is diminished entirely.

Fake It Till You Make It

“Fake it till You Make it,” wrote Baland Jalal and colleagues from the University of Cambridge Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute. During their experiment, they recruited 29 patients diagnosed with OCD from the McLean Hospital Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Institute, which is connected with Harvard Medical School. Out of 29 patients, 16 of them had their dummy and hidden hands stroked in synchrony while the 13 patients acted as the control group. This means that their real and fake hands were stroked not at the same time. The experimenter then smeared the rubber hand with fake feces while also dabbing a wet paper towel on the real hand to make the participants feel that their real hand is contaminated with dirt. The participants were then asked to rate their level of handwashing urges, anxiety, and disgust. The researchers rated the facial expression of disgust that each participant portrayed during the test.

Jalal and the team wrote that even when the fake and real hands were stroked out of sync, it still created a feeling that the rubber hand was their own. Also, both groups had the same level of contamination. Another finding is that the longer the hand is stroked, the rubber hand illusion grows stronger as the experimenter continues to stroke the real and fake hands for an additional 5 minutes after leaving the fake feces.

The researchers believe that compared to the traditional exposure therapy, the rubber hand illusion puts patients at ease even at the start because they can laugh at the idea. It is likewise cheaper and more straightforward than using virtual therapy because doctors or the experimenter can quickly reach the patients that are already in distress.

Prevalence of OCD

According to residential treatment center The Oaks, about 2.2 million people in the US suffer from OCD and both men and women suffer from the disorder in equal numbers. Usually, OCD first appears in childhood, early adulthood, or adolescence. As OCD runs in the family, genetics may play a role in the formation of the disorder although no research has yet shown which particular genes are responsible for OCD.  Most professionals believe that it is a combination of life experience and genetics that contributes to compulsions and obsessions.

Scientific online publication Our World in Data shows the list of countries with the highest share of population with an anxiety disorder, including Australia (6.58%), Brazil (6.07%), Argentina (6.28%), Chile (6.27%), United States (6.64%), Canada (5.18%), Greenland (5.27%), Algeria (5.07%), Iran (6.9%), France (6.63%), Spain (2.28%), Portugal (5.38%), and Denmark (6.54%).

The use of the rubber hand illusion may mean that patients no longer have to poorly tolerate the stress and anxiety following exposure procedures. It is not only tolerable, but it is also a simple, low-cost, and immersive technique in treating OCD.