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Report: VR as an Empathy Builder

 

Todd Maddox delves into the Neuroscience behind immersive technologies’ unique ability to make us experience things from another person’s perspective.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having these fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Any profession that requires interpersonal interaction, such as education, retail, food service, and call centers, is better served with strong empathy Click To Tweet

That is a lot to unpack, but it is clear that empathy is about much more than an explicit cognitive understanding of someone’s situation. It is more about an emotional, experiential and visceral understanding as if you have “walked a mile in someone else’s shoes” and have shared their experiences. Empathy also shows in one’s behavior. An empathetic individual uses open body language and a verbal tone that shows genuine behavioral intent. Empathy is something that you can see in another’s action.

An empathetic individual uses open body language and a verbal tone that shows genuine behavioral intent Click To Tweet

In this report, I review the psychology and neuroscience of learning and show that virtual reality (VR) has the potential to build empathy in individuals. As outlined above, this requires training at an emotional, experiential and behavioral level, not just at a cognitive level. Empathy building is facilitated by immersive experiences that are rich in context and emotion and allow one to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. As I show below, VR meets these challenges.

Empathy is something that you can see in another’s action Click To Tweet

Empathy is important in life and in many professions, and it is especially important in professions that help people in need or people under duress. For example, empathy is critical in healthcare, social work, senior care, and law enforcement, to name a few. In fact, any profession that requires interpersonal interaction, such as education, retail, food service, and call centers, is better served with individuals having strong empathy. Anytime someone could “use a friend”, “someone to listen”, or “someone to care and connect with”, empathy is a must.

Although there is likely some genetic component to empathy, as there is with so many things, many believe that it can be trained Click To Tweet

Some people seem to naturally have empathy, and others seem not to. Although there is likely some genetic component to empathy, as there is with so many things, many believe that empathy can be trained. Empathy training is clearly challenging though because this is not a skill that requires a simple cognitive understanding. Rather, empathy is an emotional skill that requires shared experience in the sense that one can “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and can behave accordingly.

Empathy training is about training a person, and every person’s actions are directed by their brain. Thus, to understand how to effectively train empathy, one must understand the psychology and neuroscience of learning.

“Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information”

Albert Einstein

This is an insightful quote from Albert Einstein that is supported by the neuroscience of learning and is especially relevant to empathy training.

As outlined in the figure below, the human brain is comprised of at least four distinct learning systems. As Einstein so eloquently stated, experience is at the heart of learning. The experiential system has evolved to represent the sensory aspects of an experience, whether visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory. Every experience is unique, adds rich context to the learning and is immersive. The critical brain regions associated with experiential learning are the occipital lobes (sight), temporal lobes (sound), and parietal lobes (touch/smell). Experiential learning is especially important when it comes to empathy. The more one can vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another, the more empathetic they will become. If one can literally “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” they get this vicarious experience.

Empathy building is facilitated by immersive experiences rich in context and emotion that allow one to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes Click To Tweet

Brain Diagram Tech Trends.jpg

 

One can experience a situation from any vantage point; Providing empathy, watching another provide empathy or receiving empathy Click To Tweet

The cognitive system is the information system. It processes and stores knowledge and facts using working memory and attention. Critically, these are limited resources and form a bottleneck that slows learning with more information coming in and available to the learner (the green arrows) than can be processed (the red arrow). This system encompasses the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This is the “everything else” aspect of learning that Einstein alluded to. With respect to empathy, this might involve memorizing the Merriam-Webster definition, knowing explicitly that eye contact is important, or that it is important to be understanding.

The behavioral system in the brain has evolved to learn motor skills. This is an amazing system and one that builds the “muscle memory” that drives empathetic behaviors. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are fascinating but are beyond the scope of this report. Suffice it to say that the critical brain structure for behavioral learning is the striatum, and processing in the striatum is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Behaviors that are rewarded lead to dopamine release into the striatum that incrementally increases the likelihood of eliciting that behavior again in the same context.

emotional learning, when combined with context-rich experiences, builds rich repertoires of empathetic understanding and behavior Click To Tweet

Behaviors that are punished do not lead to dopamine release into the striatum thus incrementally decreasing the likelihood of eliciting that behavior again in the same context. This system links rich experiential contexts (represented by the experiential learning system) and emotions with the appropriate behavioral responses. It is one thing to know the definition of empathy, to know that eye contact is important, and to know that you need to show understanding, but it is completely different (and mediated by different systems in the brain) to know how to show empathy with eye contact and behaviors that demonstrate true understanding.

The more one can vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another, the more empathetic they will become Click To Tweet

More than anything, it is the emotional learning system in the brain that builds the interpersonal understanding, awareness, and sensitivity that are at the heart of empathy and an understanding of our and others’ behaviors. The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less well understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but emotional learning, when combined with context-rich experiences, builds rich repertoires of empathetic understanding and behavior.

The emotional learning system in the brain builds the interpersonal understanding, awareness, and sensitivity that are at the heart of empathy and an understanding of our and others’ behaviors Click To Tweet

It should be clear from this brief review of the psychology and neuroscience of learning, that training empathy is a challenge. Memorizing definitions, and an explicit cognitive understanding of empathy is not sufficient. Watching video of examples of empathetic and non-empathetic behavior is better, but even these do not represent immersive, context-rich experiences that elicit strong emotions. Empathy simulation and role-play training offer a step in the right direction because they are interactive, involve emotion-laden situations and behavior, but even here it is often difficult to suspend the reality of who you are and who your role-playing partner might be. In addition, people differ in their willingness and ability to role play. Finally, simulation and role play are time-consuming, costly, and not scalable.

This is where VR comes in. VR is time- and cost-effective, and is scalable. One can experience numerous VR scenarios and can repeat them as many times as one likes. VR has the potential to build the empathy that is so desperately needed.

VR is time- and cost-effective, and is scalable Click To Tweet

Tech Trends Neurology XR Empathy Todd Maddox report

One can experience numerous VR scenarios and can repeat them as many times as one likes Click To Tweet

Consider a healthcare setting and a nurse-in-training. As any seasoned nurse will tell you, the classroom does a good job of training the technical aspects of the job, but not the interpersonal. However, suppose this nurse-in-training was given empathy training in VR, along with their traditional classroom training. Using VR, this nurse-in-training might be transported into the middle of a busy emergency room and shadow a seasoned nurse explaining a patient’s condition to their distraught spouse. Using voice-over, the seasoned nurse might explain how they are showing empathy to soothe the concerns of the spouse. The nurse-in-training is in the situation and can feel the emotions. They can combine the information provided by the seasoned nurse with the behaviors they are observing, all within an emotion-laden, realistic experience.

A nurse-in-training might be transported into the body of a patient just coming out of anesthesia following surgery Click To Tweet

This engages multiple learning systems in synchrony and will build empathy quickly and effectively. Analogously, the nurse-in-training might be transported into the body of a patient just coming out of anesthesia following surgery. They might experience one situation in which their nurse shows strong empathy and another situation in which their nurse does not. These behaviors are being directed at the nurse-in-training, while they embody a patient. This “walk a mile in my shoes” experience offers the first-person perspective that one needs to build empathy.

VR has the potential to build the empathy that is so desperately needed Click To Tweet

One can imagine similar VR empathy building scenarios for social workers, senior care professionals, law enforcement, retail, food service, and education to name just a few.

VR is immersive, and with high-quality content, one can experience almost any empathy-building situation. The experiential learning systems will be highly engaged and the learner will have a sense of presence. One can experience a situation from any vantage point, whether the one providing empathy, one watching another provide empathy or the receiver of empathy. Thus, one can obtain an emotional understanding from multiple perspectives. A cognitive understanding can emerge, but it is a byproduct and not the primary avenue of training. Emotion-laden experiential learning builds a deep emotional understanding of empathy, while simultaneously building a strong repertoire of empathy-related behaviors.

VR is immersive, and with high-quality content, one can experience almost any empathy-building situation Click To Tweet

For companies looking to get into Immersive technologies such as VR/AR/MR/XR our Virtual Reality Consultancy services offer guidance and support on how best to incorporate these into your brand strategy.

Todd Maddox is Science, Sports and Training Correspondent at Tech Trends, and the CEO of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @wtoddmaddox