Man Reports Sensation In Missing Fingers Using Oculus Touch

by Joe Durbin • February 16th, 2017

Bob Murphy was born without three fingers. The pinky, ring and middle digits on his right hand end around the first knuckle. Murphy is the owner of an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and he recently obtained the Oculus Touch hand controller system as well. According to Murphy, he acquired Touch “with the sole purpose to see what it’s like to have ten fingers.”

With Touch, the Rift represents your hands as ghostly floating 3D approximations. You can make a fist, do a thumbs up, and point using the controller’s capacitive sensors.

“My brain…only understands having one full hand and one less than full hand,” Murphy explained in an interview with UploadVR. “But when you have an experience that makes your hands actually look like hands, that’s what triggered me.”

Murphy says he’s not entirely sure which experience exactly he was using when the first sensations were achieved, he just remembers how it felt.

“It wasn’t something I expected to happen and my brain kind of internalized it the whole time. My brain kept trying to figure out what was up and I started feeling what can only be described as tingling sensations from parts of my fingers that I’ve never had,” he said.

The closest approximation Murphy could come up with for the feelings he was getting with Touch was the phantom limb sensation that amputees sometimes report. However, in Murphy’s case he never had these sensations to begin with.

We reached out to Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a physician and former psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School. Vahabzadeh is working at a VR/AR startup called brainpower that studies the way our brains can be influenced and our lives improved using immersive technology.

According to Dr. Vahabzadeh:

We know that people who are born with missing limbs may experience a range of phantom limb sensations. This may suggest that representations of our limbs may be hard-wired into our brains. It has been suggested that in individuals who are born with missing limbs, feelings of phantom movements may be modulated by parts of their brain that deal with sight.

We do know that our brains are very neuroplastic, meaning they are able to reorganize in response to experiences. Virtual reality is already being used to help people with amputations who are experiencing phantom limb pain. While the research literature is limited, virtual reality may very well be able to modulate a range of other phantom limb sensations.

More cases like Murphy’s could one day prove out these ideas. For now, Murphy is excited to keep experimenting with different experiences and feeling something he never thought was possible.

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  • NooYawker

    VR does mess with the brain. Whenever I play a game with full locomotion often I’ll have extremely vivid dreams. Which is usually awesome except the one about the bloodied nun at the foot of my bed.

    • DrakeDoesn’tWrite

      I had one where a Giant Rat just ran right through me. I actually make a weird noise, popped out of my sleep and started laughing.

    • Get Schwifty!

      It is an odd effect, I have noticed more vivid dreams (not lucid though) after playing in VR and then sleeping later that day, definitely and odd side effect….

    • Xodroc

      The sleeper must awaken.

  • Doctor Bambi

    On the other end of this phenomenon, there have been numerous users reporting a sensation after using Touch that their actual hands do not feel real or somehow feel detached from themselves. Very interesting stuff; there’s still so much to discover in regards to how VR ultimately affects our minds.

    • Robbie Cartwright

      true that.

    • Get Schwifty!

      That effect would be true with any controller that comes closer to simulating a “hand”, as opposed to the wand design. Just the way the brain works,

    • Working with experimental setups with Kinect and VR and having used Touch and all possible stuff, I can confirm: your brain sometimes have confusion moments about what’s real and what is not. Usually vanishes in some time

  • Wow, these are the things that I love to read about VR: new possibilities for all people!

  • Albert Hartman

    VR may have the ability to get people to feel empathy where they usually don’t – so called “phantom heart” syndrome.

  • Lulu Vi Britannia

    THIS! That’s the kind of story I’d like to hear about VR. THIS is what major media should report. Instead, what have we got? “Oculus lost to Zenimax”, “Oculus sales are extremely low”, “VR doesn’t appeal to people”…
    THIS is the kind of story that should be spreading!