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VR & The Mind: Empathy – Could VR Make Us Care More?

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.” – Barack Obama 

We seem to be getting worse at understanding one another; or at least caring on a wide enough scale to do anything about it.  A cursory look at current global events doesn’t do much to refute this.

Racial tension continues to simmer in the US provoked by a spate of police shootings of unarmed African Americans and the lingering threats of Donald Trump’s wall.  European politics continues to move away from the middle ground, with a troubling resurgence of the far right amid the uncertainty of “Brexit”.  Meanwhile, the disturbingly steady beat of extremist terror continues to drum across the world, arguably the greatest example of deep seated mutual misunderstanding facing our generation.

On a more personal level, how many homeless people have we all walked past in the last month? Or did we really need that extra 15 minutes in the shower? This contrast is perhaps most stark in the global tech mecca of Silicon Valley which has a surprisingly ugly homeless problem and an even uglier lack of empathy in some quarters.

But what does all this have to do with virtual reality (VR)?

VR has been described as the “ultimate empathy machine”. It gives us a way to almost literally put us in someone else’s shoes and experience the world the way they do.Intuitively, we know that intense experiences change our perceptions and behaviours. So, if VR can create realistic enough experiences to evoke these reactions – could it truly make us care more? Could VR hold the key to resolving our most damaging behaviours? Or is the empathy experienced just another marketing fad? Or worse, could this become a malevolent tool to manipulate us in more powerful ways than we’ve ever previously known?

To answer these questions, we must briefly look at what empathy really is and how it works.

How does Empathy work?

We are innately social animals. Our brains are wired with the ability to perceive one another’s needs to allow us to operate effectively in groups. It is these interpersonal faculties which many scientists believe lies at the heart of our species’ success.


Jamil Zaki, a Stanford neuroscientist studying empathy, identifies three primary ways we experience empathy – we actively share an experience, we internally think about someone else’s experience and we express motivation or take action to improve another person’s experience. Scientists have managed to identify specific regions of the brain and “mirror neurons” that are activated when people experience empathy.

These studies show that when we witness others in pain this activates the same parts of the brain as if we were experiencing it ourselves. Disturbingly, we’ve come to learn this in part from analysing psychopaths, who under the same conditions actually trigger areas in the brain associated with pleasure.

The process that turns momentary experiences of empathy into lasting behaviour change unfortunately remains far more elusive.

So for VR, Jeremy Bailenson neatly summarises how it might make our brain work: “If you think of an intense experience you’ve had in your life that has changed the way you think or behave, and if you believe that VR can feel real, then you can start to understand how VR experiences can change the way you think or behave.”


What’s happening today?

This all sounds promising and in many areas it is. Clouds over Sidra is a VR documentary that puts potential donors into the shoes of a young Syrian refugee. Created by leading VR filmmaker and poster boy Chris Milk in partnership with the UN, Clouds over Sidra is one of the most widely distributed VR films to date. To further promote the issue, Milk’s production company partnered with the New York Times last November to create The Displaced, which was sent out to over 1 million subscribers along with a Google Cardboard. 

All this seems to have had an impact. Clouds over Sidra was praised for helping boost donations at a fundraising conference by over 70% to $3.8billion. More directly, UNICEF’s David Cravinho has seen the film half the time it takes to convert a potential donor to making a donation. This provided enough evidence for the UN to invest in creating their own “UNVR” app which was launched at the Toronto Film Festival last month.

Milk and the UN aren’t the only ones trying to harness VR’s empathetic power. UK VR company Visualise have created several high profile VR films for NGOs themselves, including Forced From Home for Medicens Sans Frontier (MSF) – which also profiled the plight of refugees from Syria and Honduras. For Henry Stuart, Visualise’s founder and CEO VR offers a “unique ability to emotionally connect with people”.

To maximise the experience of empathy and connection, Visualise focused on telling critical parts of the story face to face with patients and doctors.

As Stuart puts it, “The fact that you feel transported and in another location is the first step but then seeing someone in front of you, see the whites of their eyes gives the similar sense of connection to if they were standing right in front of you.”

Clouds Over Sidra

There’s a risk, however, that these initiatives become the latest novelty marketing tool available only to those with UN size budgets rather than creating anything with more longevity.

Sustained grassroots campaigns focused on less high profile social issues present a further testing ground for how much lasting behaviour change VR can create.Visualise are doing their bit in this area working with Jane Gauntlett for her In My Shoes series which gives each audience member a window into what it is like to have the neurological condition epilepsy. Similarly, The National Autistic Society (NAS) used VR as part of their broader “Too Much Information” campaign which aims to explore the chaotic reality of autism and raise public awareness of the condition

Whilst general public reaction was positive, the real step change was for families who found they now had a practical tool to use in daily interactions to help explain to friends, teachers and others what their loved ones were experiencing.

Behind all this is the emerging scientific evidence from Bailenson’s Stanford lab. They’ve conducted research studies where people have been made older, color blind and even superheroes. In each case, people’s thoughts and behaviours in the real world alter as a result of these experiences. Its also clear that Bailenson believes this has much further to go: “What’s surprising to most is that even with fairly modest graphical realism and imperfect limb tracking, participants can still feel as though they have become the avatar they are embodying.”


What could possibly go wrong?

Inevitably, the “ultimate empathy machine” still has a few kinks to work out.

One of Bailenson’s earlier studies found that placing people into darker-skinned avatars actually activated negative stereotypes about black people rather than building understanding. Similar studies have also demonstrated that experiences such as this can trigger racial stereotypes due to the priming effect. There is also the issue of creating long lasting behavioural change as opposed to fleeting alterations of perspective. All scientific evidence so far suffers from the common experimental limitations of small sample sizes and minimal long term data. Bailenson’s lab is looking to address this right now through an “empathy-at-scale” study which will collect data from a diverse sample of 1000 participants.

Then there’s the bigger concern of what happens when we do crack the empathy code.

We’re already extremely easily manipulated by the media that surrounds us. What happens once we start creating environments that precipitate behaviour change with surgical precision? How do we educate people about what they’re experiencing? How do we cater for moral ambiguity? And how do we manage the inevitable nefarious uses that will be dreamt up by tomorrow’s autocracies and criminals? As with all technology, we often lazily assume that it will only be used by the good guys to make things better for us all.

VR is one of a spate of 21st century technologies that is too powerful to simply ignore what could go wrong.


So could VR make us care more?

There’s no doubt VR can create visceral moments of empathy that at least for a short period afterwards make us care more. Already, it’s helping us donate more, think more carefully about making future savings and be more mindful of conditions like autism. But we’re still a long way from having something resembling the mechanistic certitude of an “empathy machine”. Right now, it’s simply another experimental tool for those seeking to persuade and enact change.

Given what’s possible today, I’m most excited about targeted interventions that actively tackle our inbuilt cognitive biases. Imagine how VR experiences could be used as a priming technique in peace negotiations and conflict resolution.  So my hope is, for every VR empathy film that pulls the heartstrings of glitzy festival audiences, there’s also an experience put in the hands of powerful individuals, making complex decisions, during real-life meaningful situations.

Only then might we start to see VR truly become the ultimate empathy machine.