Helping patients feel happier by changing the sound of their shoes

A gorgeous pair of Jimmy Choos or the trendiest trainers might give some people a lift, but any old footwear connected to sound-altering technology can change how wearers feel about themselves. Researchers have found that these sound-adapted shoes can make wearers feel slimmer and happier and could be used to treat body dysmorphias, movement impairments and chronic pain.

The Hearing Body Project at University College London is investigating how auditory information generated by subjects’ bodies updates their body representation. For example, the sounds produced when tapping on a surface inform the brain about the current length and strength of that arm. Altering such sounds can therefore affect the bodily actions performed and the emotional states linked to perceptions of the ability to perform certain actions.

So, if the subject wearing the adapted footwear is played the sound of a lighter person’s footsteps via earphones they feel more light-footed and develop a spring in their step, according to an interview in New Scientist. After walking in the shoes, subjects often report feeling happier and if asked to adjust the size of a virtual avatar to reflect their body shape, they depict themselves as slimmer than before. Unfortunately perhaps, the wearer returns to their original state within seconds of removing the shoes. But subjects with body dysmorphia are more responsive to these interventions, suggesting the conditions could be caused by a disrupted sense of embodiment.

Even sitting position has been shown to affect behaviour. Studies have shown that individuals who engage in ‘expansive postures’ are more likely to steal money, cheat on a test and commit traffic offences. And cars with more expansive drivers’ seats are more likely to be parked illegally. Researchers demonstrated that postural expansiveness leads to a psychological and physiological state of power, which mediates the corrupt behaviour.

Patients’ awareness of their positioning and movement can be reduced by localised pain. So, for example, chronic pain sufferers tend to think that their body is stretching more than it really is, which makes physiotherapy more challenging. Some of their proprioceptors also switch to transmitting pain.

Researchers from UCL working with the University of Genoa have developed an app that works like a sensory prosthesis, giving chronic pain sufferers real-time information about their body movement and location. They hope that this will help patients to stretch further and reset their proprioceptors to accurately reflect their body position. This should give then a more realistic idea of their physical capabilities and stop the proprioceptors from transmitting pain signals.

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Citation
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 21 February 2015, Vol 294, No 7850;294(7850):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20067747