Rehabilitating the mental body

Many resources go into rehabilitating the physical body following serious injury; far fewer resources go into rehabilitating the mental body.

The physical body has a mental representation (the body in the brain) that can be disturbed through persistent or chronic pain, physical trauma or brain damage.

Disturbed body representations include body parts feeling distorted, enlarged, detached or present when physically absent, and are often accompanied by intractable pain or body dissatisfaction.

Pain and body-related low self-esteem are damaging to mental health and a barrier to return-to-work and tackling these is an important component of successful rehabilitation.

My research focuses on how we can change perception of the body through the use of sensory illusions. Sensory illusions work by slightly changing the sensory information the brain receives - like what you can see, feel or touch. Changing the sensory input changes how the brain makes sense of the body – how the body feels in terms of shape, sensation, movement and emotional connection.

Dr Roger Newport Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Research in focus

Mediated reality

Building on early mirror box therapy, mediated reality can manipulate and ameliorate disturbed body representations, using real-time images of participants’ own bodies and multisensory input to alter how the body feels.

In healthy participants, manipulations lead to feelings of distorted, missing or duplicated body parts. In patients, proof-of-concept studies have reduced pain and improved body image in osteoarthritis, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, and chronic back, orofacial and phantom limb pain.

Finding non-pharmaceutical ways to reduce pain, even temporarily, and improve self-esteem can provide windows of opportunity to engage in physiotherapy, exercise and other health-promoting behaviours, helping to remove barriers to successful rehabilitation and return to an active and healthy life.

The two main strands of this research investigate: how we can manipulate healthy perception of the body so that it temporarily feels impaired or unhealthy; and how we can use this information to improve impaired or unhealthy perception of the body in people living with persistent pain or with distorted representations of how their body feels due to physical trauma or brain damage.

  • Lewis JS, Newport R, Taylor G, Smith M, McCabe C. (2021). Visual illusions modulate body perception disturbance and pain in Complex Regional Pain Syndrome: a randomized trial. European Journal of Pain. 1–13, 25(7), 1551–1563. DOI: 10.1002/ejp.1766
  • Stanton TR, Gilpin HR, Edwards L, Moseley GL, Newport R. (2018). Illusory resizing of the painful knee is analgesic in symptomatic knee osteoarthritis. PeerJ, 6, e5206. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.5206
  • Nishigami T, Wand BM, Newport R, Ratcliffe N, Themelis K, Moen D, Stanton TR. (2019). Embodying the illusion of a strong, fit back in people with chronic low back pain. A pilot proof-of-concept study. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 39, 178-183. DOI: 10.1016/j.msksp.2018.07.002
  • Preston C, Newport R. (2011). Analgesic effects of multisensory illusions in osteoarthritis. Rheumatology. 50(12), 2314-2315. DOI:  10.1093/rheumatology/ker104

Meet the experts

Dr Roger Newport

Dr Roger Newport

Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Oscar Hutton

Oscar Hutton

Doctoral Researcher