Using Virtual Reality to Teach Empathy

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is more than just a phrase for people working at the intersection of psychology and technology.
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The materials used for “An Empathy Bridge for Autism” VR experience are mostly low-cost and utilize tranquil hues.

Photo by Paul Plews.

Heeju Kim wants people to fathom what it would be like to be incapable of reading others’ body language and to be perpetually inundated with strange, troublesome noises. The end goal is to give you insight into the sensory and motor challenges that individuals with autism spectrum disorder face, and in turn, cultivate greater empathy.

Kim, 29, has spent many years trying to better understand the experiences of her 27-year-old brother who has the disorder. In addition to various sensory issues, her brother is affected by apraxia of speech, making it hard for him to turn thoughts into intelligible speech. While they were growing up, Kim observed in her brother’s school classrooms that other kids were reluctant to interact with him. Taking what she learned from those experiences and the extensive literature on the disorder, Kim created a virtual reality experience called “An Empathy Bridge for Autism” in 2016 as a master’s student at the Royal College of Art in London, England.

“I thought virtual reality has the potential to make an impact on the way we approach patient care or helping the disabled,” Kim said. “When we see blind people or someone riding in a wheelchair, we know what’s going on with them. We know they can’t see so we should help them, or they can’t work so we should support them. But when people see someone with autism, they don’t know why they’re doing weird behavior and they might ignore them to escape from an awkward experience.”

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An Empathy Bridge for Autism is a toolkit that includes three virtual sensory components, including peculiarly shaped lollipops that make it hard to speak clearly, headphones that produce loud, distorted sounds, and a headset that, when used in tandem with a smartphone application, simulates the experience of having double vision. In similar fashion, designer Di Peng created a virtual reality headset in 2016 that imitates the sensory changes experienced by people living with dementia.

Virtual reality activities may help cultivate empathy in people by creating the perceptual illusion of “embodiment,” or the feeling that a user is in the body of a virtual avatar, according to a 2018 article published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI. Moreover, researchers have found evidence that such may drive users to exhibit psychological responses comparable to those that occur when witnessing another person in real-life danger.

Courtney Cogburn, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, worked with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab to create “1000 Cut Journey,” a virtual reality experience that immerses viewers in the racism encountered throughout the life of a fictitious Black American man named Michael Sterling. “1000 Cut Journey,” which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, uses a head-mounted display consisting of virtual reality goggles, headphones, and hand controllers that cause avatars to simulate a user’s arm movements.

“We drew from a broader literature around discrimination and racism more generally,” Cogburn said. “So thinking about the ways in which discrimination and racism show up in different contexts like school settings, or the workplace, or housing, then tried to consider ways we could integrate that into the experience we created.”

A user of “An Empathy Bridge for Autism” at a workshop Kim hosted in Hiroshima, Japan. Photo by Shinichi Hanafusa.

Cogburn and her team also referred to popular press and anecdotes, examining public discourse on issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline and stop-and-frisk laws. “1000 Cut Journey” explicitly targets White liberals, and its creators are collecting data on the effects the experience may be having on its participants.

“It’s clear to me that—for some people at least—we’re definitely hitting the mark that I hoped to hit, which was for White people in particular to come out of the experience feeling like they don’t really understand these experiences perhaps in the ways that they thought they did,” Cogburn said regarding her anecdotal observations. But the noticeable impact notwithstanding, she recognizes that virtual reality has limitations.

“A point that we’ve been making about this project is that when people think about VR, they tend to emphasize empathy as the outcome and what they think VR is best at,” Cogburn said. “But feeling bad or connecting to bad feelings that are being experienced by a group is really not sufficient for social change.”

Now, Cogburn said, her focus is not just on increasing compassion and understanding, but making lasting behavioral changes that can transform social institutions. Evidence of the capacity of virtual reality to influence human cognition has been well-studied and documented over the past several decades, but questions remain surrounding the permanence of those effects and whether they could present perils.

Erick Ramirez, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, studies how virtual reality can be used to recreate concepts in classic philosophy, such as moral dilemmas at the university’s Experimental Philosophy Laboratory. He offers several caveats against marketing virtual reality experiences as empathy-building tools.

“Usually when we talk about sympathy, we’re talking about a form of caring about or for somebody,” Ramirez said. “But it’s not necessarily the same thing as saying that you’re mirroring what’s going on with them. For example, I don’t think you want an empathetic doctor—you want a sympathetic doctor. You want them to care about what’s going on with you, but if you’re really sick, you don’t want them to also feel terrible.”

Part of the complication, Ramirez acknowledges, is that psychologists recognize several forms of empathy—including cognitive and emotional—and that the terms “sympathy” and “empathy” are often used interchangeably in colloquial settings. “If we think we’re getting empathic access through VR, we’re not,” Ramirez said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not doing something potentially useful.”

A user of “An Empathy Bridge for Autism” at a workshop Kim hosted in London. Photo by Sam Miller.

Beyond semantics, Ramirez warns that marketing virtual reality as empathy generators could backfire. Such a premise, he says, might elicit apathy in the event a user concludes another’s circumstances aren’t so bad after all. Moreover, Ramirez points to research published in PLOS One suggesting that virtual simulations of causing bodily harm to another may cause people to respond “realistically at subjective, physiological, and behavioural [sic] levels in interaction with virtual characters notwithstanding their cognitive certainty that they are not real.”

Ramirez also questions the ethics of relying on technology to alter human behavior. “These are things meant to get you to change your behavior, but not because you’ve changed your values or beliefs,” he said. “There’s a worry there about whether or not we want technology to manipulate us into the right positions or whether we want people to more cognitively and effortfully change their minds about stuff.”

But Ramirez also said that virtual reality has been used successfully in exposure therapy, a psychotherapy approach that systematically introduces triggers to help overcome phobias and trauma. A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2011 found that military veterans experiencing PTSD reported their symptoms had lessened after completing several virtual reality exposure therapy sessions.

Though Kim, creator of Empathy Bridge, isn’t now working on any other virtual reality pieces, she would like to see other designers create experiences that encourage users to empathize with socially vulnerable groups.

“I hope people have more interest in using virtual reality to learn about disabled life,” Kim said. “They sometimes read or see a movie and kind of talk at the time about that stuff for a few days and then that’s it. So I would like to ask people to have more interest in continuity—not just a moment.”