Can virtual reality teach empathy?

Anyone who has felt a greater appreciation for others after watching a powerful film or watching a vibrant painting understands how media can provoke empathy. Although creative works have long helped us to understand those who are different from ourselves: Roger Ebert described the film as “a machine that generates empathy”: researchers have discovered that a relatively new medium can be especially effective in inspiring people to see the world through the eyes of others: virtual reality.

A lot of research has found how virtual reality can help foster greater empathy between people, whether it’s to better understand a person’s life without staying, gain knowledge about the experiences of older people, or appreciate other cultures, to name a few.

“We discovered that virtual reality could provoke empathy in a variety of environments,” says Megan Brydon, a PACS application specialist at the IWK Health Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was the lead author of one new research survey published a Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences, who found that RV could help medical professionals cultivate greater empathy for their patients.

The survey examined seven studies in which researchers used virtual reality to encourage empathic behavior in caregivers. They played the role of physician in some cases, along with patients diagnosed with diseases such as breast cancer, cranial nerve injuries, and dementia.

For example, in a 2018 study, subjects wore specially designed glasses, gloves, and headphones that altered their perceptions while completing daily tasks to simulate life with dementia. In another study, subjects placed a screen mounted on the head to adopt the perspective of a patient with signs of breast cancer.

Even with various approaches, studies have consistently pointed to an increase in empathic behavior after the experience of virtual reality. For Brydon, these consistent results point to the potential of virtual reality as a training tool for medical professionals.

“If you want to get to know a certain population or make sure you’re really prepared to provide care, it seems like virtual reality can make it a part of it,” Brydon says. “It has value for professional development or fosters cultural sensitivity: diversity, equity and inclusion or reconciliation.”

VR for DEI

Jeremy Bailenson accepts that virtual reality is promising as a tool for DEI training, a field he says is rapidly adopting this technology. As a professor of communications at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory, Bailenson has explored virtual reality as a tool for empathy since the 1990s.

Take the example of Walmart, which has introduced a training software called Strivr to thousands of employees. Bailenson’s lab also worked with the National Football League to develop a virtual reality interview simulator for explorers to identify racial or sexual bias in their questions.

“I think RV is a great way to change the conversation around DEI,” Bailenson adds. “After going through a perspective exercise in VR, which tends to wake you up emotionally, you have a new way of approaching more traditional DEI materials, for example, by reading about case studies and more substantial exercises.”

While virtual reality could help combat discrimination in the workplace, some critics warns that it is not enough to address it the important racial disparities of American companies.

At Bailenson’s Stanford Laboratory, the team has conducted virtual reality experiments since 2003 that address prejudices such as edism and racism. These projects have also explored the best way to help people with physical disabilities.

Researchers have also studied virtual reality to stimulate sensitivity to environmental concerns. They created simulations in which subjects participate as cattle to recognize the cruelty of factory farms. The program also has “submerged“Ocean reef users suffering from climate change – driven acidification.

Make empathy accessible

While virtual reality is still largely seen as a new technology that requires expensive equipment and expertise, Bailenson stresses that it is becoming increasingly accessible and easy to work simultaneously with large groups of people. Researchers have seen powerful results with tools that are almost more sophisticated than those of two decades ago.

“No matter how much technology has advanced, better or higher resolution is not necessarily what we need,” says Marte Roel, a cognitive neuropsychology researcher and co-founder of BeAnotherLab, a scientific and artistic collective that conducts research and public demonstrations of VR potential. as a device of empathy.

Since the beginning of the project, the team has produced videos with a fairly basic image quality. “That was enough for people to have meaningful experience,” Roel says. “I don’t think it’s the resolution, it’s the dynamics that are formed based on the specific configuration. And what we do is not so much about virtual reality, but about the context and how it is accompanied.”

A BeAnotherLab signature project: a “body swap” experiment that follows a “virtual mirror” approach similar to that used by Bailenson’s lab.

In this simulation, two individuals confront and perceive that they inhabit the other’s bodies. The program instructs them to synchronize their movements, to listen to recordings of the other person’s “thoughts,” and finally to see their own body as if it belonged to a separate person. “This way you not only get to the visual perspective and not only embody that other person, but you also get closer to that person’s narrative,” Roel explains.

BeAnotherLab’s work has ranged from a family setting (letting a grandmother and grandson “exchange bodies” to better understand each other’s experiences) to a global one (creating a simulation that includes Israelis and Palestinians, or one that include children and government officials in the Mexico cartel). dominated regions).

Reality versus virtual reality

Roel’s conclusion, that the context of a virtual reality experience matters more than technology, fits the same recent findings published a Computer science in human behavior reports that compared the impact of virtual simulations to real “embodied experiences”.

The study analyzed the responses to Virtual reality experience in which she adopted the perspective of a 13-year-old girl in Ethiopia who has to walk several miles a day to collect water. A different group participated in a real-life activity in which subjects wore jugs of water for 10-minute periods.

The researchers compared the self-reported empathy scores of the two groups and the percentage of money donated to charities (participants received $ 10 at the beginning of the experiment and were able to donate their preferred portion).

“We found that there really wasn’t a significant difference between the two groups in terms of,‘ Does one generate more empathy or donations than the other? “, Says Andrew Hargrove, lead author of the study and doctor of sociology. Candidate at New York State University in Stony Brook.

He does not believe that findings detract from the value of VR as a tool for generating empathy, but introduces an additional way to build on VR lessons.

“Our research does not try to discredit virtual reality as the ‘ultimate empathy machine.’ It tries to expand our knowledge of what is possible,” says Hargrove. “Science is a collaborative process, and over the last two decades, and over the next two decades, we will come to a much better understanding of what virtual reality does and what it is capable of.”

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