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Could Seeing Oneself as Einstein Boost Problem-Solving?

Participants scored higher on a cognitive task after embodying him in VR.

Orren Jack Turner/Public Domain
Source: Orren Jack Turner/Public Domain

For anyone who has ever doubted his or her brain power based on some lousy test scores or being rejected by a college admissions committee, Albert Einstein embodies the ability we all have to do a whole lot better on cognitive tasks than expected.

In fact, a new study, “Virtually Being Einstein Results in an Improvement in Cognitive Task Performance and a Decrease in Age Bias,” reports that people with low self-esteem about their test-taking abilities scored better on problem-solving tasks after spending time embodying a gray-haired Albert Einstein avatar. Interestingly, this virtual-reality simulation also caused younger participants to exhibit less implicit bias based on unconscious stereotypes about older people. This paper was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Domna Banakou, Sameer Kishore, Mel Slater (2018) Frontiers in Psychology/Creative Commons
The experimental setup. The body of the participant was substituted by a gender-matched virtual body, viewed from 1PP, onto which body and head movements were mapped in real time. (A) The Einstein virtual body. (B) The Normal virtual body. (C) Participants were fitted with an HTC VIVE head-mounted display, and their body movements were tracked by 37 OptiTrack markers.
Source: Domna Banakou, Sameer Kishore, Mel Slater (2018) Frontiers in Psychology/Creative Commons

There are two main takeaways from this research. First, being in the virtual body of someone who was older shifted preconceived attitudes about the elderly for younger study participants. Bias is generally based on considering someone to be different from oneself. Therefore, seeing themselves in virtual reality moving in the shoes of an older person appears to have blurred the "us vs. them" line of distinction between being “old” or “young” and dissolved stereotypes. Second, being in the body of someone who is universally viewed as extremely intelligent caused study participants with lower self-esteem to unlock mental resources they didn’t typically tap into during their day-to-day lives.

"Virtual reality can create the illusion of a virtual body (VB) to substitute your own, which is called virtual embodiment," co-author Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona said in a statement. "In an immersive virtual environment, participants can see this new body reflected in a mirror and it exactly matches their movements, helping to create a powerful illusion that the virtual body is their own. We wondered whether virtual embodiment could affect cognition.”

This was the central question for the research team of Banakou, Kishore, and Slater when designing this study: Would virtual body participants perform better on a cognitive task if they saw themselves in Einstein's body in comparison to embodying an anonymous gender-matched body? To answer this question, Slater and colleagues set up an experiment with 30 young men in a virtual-reality lab. They gave each person either a generic college-age body in jeans and a T-shirt or a recognizable body that conveyed the “supreme intelligence” of an elderly Albert Einstein wearing a white lab coat.

Albert Einstein Was the Antithesis of a Cookie-Cutter “Straight-A Student”

From a young age, German-born Einstein (1879–1955) seemed hardwired to defy rigid pedagogical constraints, challenge authoritarian teachers, and rebel against the status quo. If you are someone who failed to excel in traditional educational environments, Einstein is an excellent role model for the fact that intelligence is malleable and manifests itself in different ways at various stages of life.

As a teenager, Einstein felt stifled by the Prussian-style education he was receiving at a secondary school in Munich that taught by rote and frowned upon thinking outside the box. According to a CBS News report, “Celebs Who Went From Failure to Success,” Einstein was briefly expelled from school as a result of his rebellious nature. He was also supposedly told by one teacher that he would "never amount to anything." When Einstein re-entered the school system, his test results showed that he had a knack for physics and mathematics, but flunked chemistry and biology. After graduating from high school, the Zurich Polytechnic School notoriously rejected Einstein due to his lack of academic accolades.

In 1936, at the age of 57, Einstein gave a speech in which he said, “I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost.”

E.O. Hoppe/Public Domain
Albert Einstein began his musical training in childhood and continued to develop his passion for playing the violin as he grew older. Einstein once said, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin."
Source: E.O. Hoppe/Public Domain

Einstein's educational philosophy of developing one's passion by exploring diverse interests (such as becoming a violin virtuoso) reaffirms the latest growth mindset research (2018) by O’Keefe, Dweck, and Walton. (For more see, “Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make It Happen!”) Although he is best known for his mind-boggling cerebral intelligence, Einstein also had a lifelong passion for playing the violin and dedicated a lot of time and energy to becoming a better musician well into old age.

One of the coolest things about the new "virtual body" study from the University of Barcelona is that the perception of having Albert Einstein's body via a virtual reality avatar unlocked mental resources that were previously unavailable to study participants with low self-esteem. The findings suggest that embodying a VB changed how people viewed themselves in a way that mirrored the cognitive potential of the avatar their body was inhabiting. Additionally, being in the body of someone who looked different from the demographic of each study participant made all of them more empathic towards this outside group.

Although the new study on people experiencing the illusion of their body looking like an elderly Albert Einstein doesn’t directly discuss mirror neurons, this research dovetails with ongoing mirroring system research by Marco Iacoboni at UCLA.

Recently, musicologist Zachary Wallmark—currently an assistant professor in the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU and director of their MuSci Lab—collaborated with Iacoboni for a fMRI-based neuroimaging study, "Embodied Listening and Timbre: Perceptual, Acoustical, and Neural Correlates." This study was part of Wallmark's graduate work at UCLA on the role of motor embodiment via the mirroring system during the experience of music-mediated empathy. (For more see, "Empathy, Music Listening, and Mirror Neurons Are Intertwined")

One could speculate that because "mirroring Albert Einstein" in a virtual body made participants in the latest study by Banakou et al. more empathic to the elderly, similar neural correlates related to music-mediated empathy may be involved.

Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain
Albert Einstein had a fun-loving and philosophical passion for bicycle riding. He famously said of E = mc2, "I thought of that while riding my bicycle."
Source: Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain

As a science-based writer who takes an interdisciplinary approach that often incorporates art and music and that encourages readers to optimize the brain-boosting power of exercise by staying physically active, I find Albert Einstein a never-ending source of inspiration. Einstein was often seen taking long walks around the Princeton campus as part of his daily thinking process. He also loved bike riding. Most of you have probably seen a fridge magnet with the famous Einstein quotation: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” For anecdotal evidence supporting a possible link between physical activity and “Eureka!” moments, Einstein said of E = mc², “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.” (For more see, "Aha! Aerobic Exercise Facilitates the Free Flow of Thought." )

Over the years, I’ve learned through trial and error that using embodied cognition to imagine being in Albert Einstein's shoes fortifies a sense of confidence about my relatively feeble cognitive potential. As a specific example: I keep a picture of Einstein riding his bicycle thumbtacked into a cork board near my computer as a reminder to get up and move my body if the creative juices stop flowing after sitting still for too long.

Sometimes, when I'm struggling to solve a problem at my desk, I'll hop on my bike and pretend that I’m Albert Einstein peddling along with a playful smile on his face (in the image above). Seeing myself as a happy-go-lucky Einstein for a minute or two never fails to enhance my self-belief that a solution and “aha!” moment is just around the corner. This is something anyone can do. Anecdotally, I can corroborate that the process of seeing myself in Einstein's body has helped me "unclamp" my intellectual machinery and connect the dots of seemingly unrelated ideas countless times.

Slater and collaborators are optimistic that someday soon their findings on "virtually being Einstein" will lead to the implementation of virtual embodiment technology in schools. This type of virtual-reality experience could help students who are struggling with self-esteem issues improve their cognitive-task performance.

That said, even if you don't have access to a virtual-reality lab like the one used in the latest experiment from the University of Barcelona, you can always use your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of people you admire and mirror your role model's aura.

From trait empathy to embodied cognition, there is a growing body of evidence that it's possible to use the neural circuitry of our mirroring system to reduce implicit bias, increase empathy, and improve cognitive-task performance.


Domna Banakou, Sameer Kishore, Mel Slater. "Virtually Being Einstein Results in an Improvement in Cognitive Task Performance and a Decrease in Age Bias." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: June 11, 2018) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00917

Marco Iacoboni. "Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons." Annual Review of Psychology (2009) DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604

Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck, Marco Iacoboni. "Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (First published: April 6, 2018) DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00066

Zachary Wallmark, Marco Iacoboni, Choi Deblieck, Roger A. Kendall. "Embodied Listening and Timbre: Perceptual, Acoustical, and Neural Correlates." Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal (First published: February 2, 2018) DOI: 10.1525/mp.2018.35.3.332

Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton. "Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?" In press at Psychological Science (July 2018)

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