Between finding a bizarre UFO in her yard and being called out for her embarrassingly poor understanding of snakes, Taylor Swift has had a rough year. No wonder, then, that she fantasizes about being invisible in her new video for “Delicate,” which shows all the ways America’s ex-sweetheart would go wild in New York if nobody could see her. How she feels is pretty much the same way that participants felt when they took part in a strange psychology experiment on invisibility in 2015.
In that study, published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers from Sweden explored how being invisible changes the way people feel. Like Swift, the researchers open their paper with the question: “What is it like to be invisible?” Since it “remains unknown how invisibility affects body perception and embodied cognition,” they designed an experiment that led people to feel they were invisible, just for a while.
When they did, they felt just like Tay.
Lacking Swift’s magic, the scientists relied on technology and an old psychological phenomenon called the “rubber hand” illusion to create the feeling of invisibility for the participants. Also known as the “body transfer illusion,” this phenomenon describes the way the brain can be tricked into thinking an external body part (like a rubber hand) is part of the actual body using visual manipulation and by supplying corresponding sensations of touch. In the experiment, participants wore a VR-like headpiece that gave them the illusion of embodying a fake body somewhere else in the room, and the scientists supplied them with corresponding haptic feedback. The overall effect was that the participants were inhabiting bodies that were treated as though they were invisible.
Part of the study focused on the physical reaction to being invisible, but the experiment that most resembled Swift’s fantasy was one focusing on invisibility’s effect on social anxiety. The participants’ avatars were placed in the traditionally nerve-wracking scenario of standing in front of a crowd of people with stern, serious faces.
“The aim of the final experiment was to test the hypothesis that the feeling of invisibility would reduce the perceived anxiety related to experiencing a stressful social situation,” they wrote. “We based this prediction on the assumption that if the body is represented as an invisible entity, it will be represented as being invisible to outside observers as well, which, in turn, should reduce the brain’s social anxiety response to being the center of other people’s attention.”
Their prediction was just as Swift posits in “Delicate”: When people are treated as though they’re invisible, they suddenly feel better. In the study, invisibility was linked to reduced heart rate and a reduced self-reported feelings of stress. Of course, anyone who has experienced social anxiety (and who hasn’t?) could have correctly predicted that escaping the gaze of potentially judgmental individuals would be a huge relief, though the mechanisms by which that occurs are not as clear-cut.
It’s likely because the way we feel is tightly linked to how we think others perceive us, no matter how much we push each other to ignore what everyone else thinks and to “do you.” After all, studies on people with social anxiety have shown that they have a heightened (and occasionally distorted) awareness of how other people view them, so it makes sense that removing the feeling that other people are viewing them at all would reduce that anxiety.
What people do with that newfound psychological freedom is up to them. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry used his invisibility cloak to spy on pretty much everyone; in Star Trek, the Romulans used a force field to hide entire starships. Swift, evidently, is content with more banal behavior, using invisibility to act just like a normal human — pulling funny faces, dancing very badly, and going on dates in dive bars.