Can Virtual Reality Foster Empathy?

I’m taking a law class and we recently had a discussion about whether we are ruled by reason or emotion. It’s a big subject that had a lot of diverse opinions. Someone brought up the notion that reason can be taught, but empathy cannot. I’d like to *provisionally* refute that idea. I think we can at least put it on the shelf for a while.

I say that because there is a new(ish) field emerging from the growth of virtual reality tech that might yield some interesting results. It’s just sparking up, but a lot of people are starting an interesting exploration. It needs some serious academic testing to measure results. But if you’ve ever experienced good VR before you’ll feel on a gut level what the excitement is all about. I’m not talking about video games, I’m talking about interactions with real people — recorded or live.

From my experience, VR seems to elicit different physiological reactions than film. With film, there is always that “4th wall” membrane that can only pull us in with sight and sound. But when you are experiencing VR, simulated experiences often sparks neurochemical reactions that film can’t. When a character in VR comes in to hug you or talk in your face, your body reacts as if that event is about to happen. You still can’t feel the contact (yet). But your mirror neurons kick in. If you are about to get hit, your fight or flight responses prep for action. You can feel this viscerally.

So if you are put in the shoes of someone being made to feel powerless, will you develop a sense of empathy for them? The tech is just catching up to the idea. But I think we’ll learn more very quickly.

There are a number of people and groups experimenting with putting a VR user into the virtual shoes of people who have different lives from them. This is one example –

Another effort is being put on by the United Nations. It’s called “Waves of Grace” and is an experience designed to help people of wealth and privilege experience what it is like to live in poverty.

As for the subject of law and order, there might be applications that are both hopeful and horrifying. What would it be like for convicted criminals to be sentenced to live the experience of their victim’s ordeal? What would be the ethical guidelines of that? On it’s face, maybe the practice could help with the goal of rehabilitation of perpetrators. On the other hand, it could be misused and take the concept of retribution too far.