What looks cold, feels cold Visual information affects thermoception

November 16, 2012

Do you feel cold when you just look at an ice cube? Psychologists have investigated such simple questions since ancient times. However, as yet, there is no evidence that the appearance of an object directly affects thermoception (our sense of temperature). This is because it has been difficult to change just the appearance of an object, without also changing the temperature of objects that are actually touching our body.

The figure illustrates this experimental procedure
© Kazuhiko Yokosawa and Shoko Kanaya

On the left, the rubber hand illusion is generated and on the right, the temperature stimuli are introduced. When the rubber hand illusion is generated, the participant feels cold when watching an ice cube touch the fake hand, even if the object touching participant’s real hand were a plastic cube at a constant temperature.

Professor Kazuhiko Yokosawa and colleagues in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, at the University of Tokyo, have developed a method for changing the appearance of an object touching a hand independently of its actual temperature, using the rubber hand illusion, an illusion in which a participant feels a fake hand as his/her own hand. Using this illusion, the researchers demonstrated that appearances can generate an illusion of temperature. In their procedure, a plastic cube designed to maintain a constant temperature is made to touch the participant’s hand, which is kept hidden from their view, while an ice cube touches a fake hand that the participant can see. When this happens, the participant feels that the object touching his/her hand (which is actually the plastic cube) becomes cold, although in fact the cube does not change its temperature. Seemingly, thermoception can be deceived by appearances. This suggests that fast and accurate processing of visual information might compensate for our everyday perceptions of temperature, even if the skin does not have sensitive thermoception.

Press release (Japanese)


Shoko Kanaya, Yuka Matsushima, & Kazuhiko Yokosawa,
“Does seeing ice really feel cold?: Visual-thermal interaction under an illusory body-ownership”,
PLoS ONE 2012/11/7, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047293.
Article link


Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology / Faculty of Letters

Department of Psychology (Japanese)

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