The Neural Technology of Empathy and the Virtual Technology that Will Harness It

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” Daniel H. Pink

It is hard to believe that these words, written a mere three years ago, have been rendered obsolete by a simple piece of cardboard and a smart phone. While empathy is still defined as the ability to understand and perhaps share the feelings of an “other,” the idea of automating and outsourcing empathy as hard is now an antiquated notion. Herein lies the promise and peril of virtual reality as a tool to transport each of us into worlds beyond and lives unknown, conjuring feelings of fear and devastation along with those of excitement and hope.

My recent post examined the potential of virtual reality to engage and excite learners through what is called embodied cognition. By acknowledging that the mind and body together form the wholeness of our experiences we can leverage virtual reality to take children beyond the classroom walls to explore spaces not delimited by country lines or commercial airfare. These experiences are not only exhilarating but they provide learners with a greater context and a deeper sense of empathy for the lives and lessons we share. The secret to this sense of empathy is due in part to the technology that replicates real world environments but is owed primarily to our own neural technology.

From Mirror Neurons to Mental States

These impressive neurons firing simply upon seeing the actions of another are what some scientists believe is the underpinning of empathy.

Besides giving us a true insider’s view into worlds beyond the classroom, VR may also be the key to engaging one of the more exciting neurological discoveries in recent times, mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are specialized cells that fire each time you observe another person taking an action. The simplest example of how mirror neurons work is the yawn. A reflex whose quick contagion spreads from person to person at a dizzying speed was charmingly demonstrated by Dr. Seuss with help from a fellow named Van Vleck. But mirror neurons are also the reason why when your toddler falls and scrapes their knee you too feel the pain of the fall, why when watching the well-known Chinese Restaurant scene in Seinfeld your stomach rumbles along with theirs, and why you can suddenly taste the spoilt milk when watching your partner sniff at an expired milk carton.

Mirror neurons have been observed in primates and humans alike. Scientists such as V.S. Ramachandran have called them “the basics of civilization” due to their ability to activate feelings solely based on observing another person’s actions. These impressive neurons firing simply upon seeing the an actions of another are what some scientists believe is the underpinning of empathy.

Distinct from sympathy which is caring for the feelings of others, empathy moves beyond the surface and suggests the individual internalizes the feelings of another. This capacity to take on the affect of another was perhaps best articulated by Atticus Finch telling Scout that the only way to truly understand a person is to “climb into his skin and walk around in it” in To Kill a Mockingbird. And the humble mirror neuron is what is at work when we feel with precision the speed of a rollercoaster or the weightlessness of a bungee jump from the Kawarau Bridge by watching home videos of a more adventurous friend. The feeling of empathy, powered by mirror neurons, is VR experiences may allow us to feel so engaged. And some socially minded games developers are even using VR games for the specific purpose of creating more empathetic gamers and more engaged citizens.

When You Are the Other

A recent ad in Denmark urging Danes to step outside themselves, challenging them to stop seeing others as outsiders has gone viral. Similarly, the International Rescue Committee’s virtual reality experience of a Syrian refugee camp documents families who have lived away from their homes for nearly four years. These experiences bring the viewer into the lives of people living in distant lands, allowing viewers to step not only into different geographic locations but to experience what it is like to live in another’s shoes. Chris Milk, the widely acclaimed filmmaker of Clouds Over Sidra acknowledges the magnitude of virtual reality as an “empathy machine.” BeAnotherLab has embraced this potential with the creation of their embodied narratives experiment called “The Machine to Be Another”.

The power of virtual reality to transport people to a place outside their 2 dimensional screens is being harnessed in a host of positive and inspiring ways. Innovative companies like Ryot are using virtual reality to raise awareness and funding for important causes worldwide. Museums like the MoMa are engaging members in virtual reality experiences to tell stories and mobilize action. And social justice warriors are using 360 degree videos to create immersive experiences and plant the seeds of empathy and movement towards a more compassionate world.

University researchers too are demonstrating how the perceived boost in empathy when engaged in virtual reality a real effect of the medium. In one study, participants were immersed in a virtual reality experience in the body of an animal to determine if the medium influenced their perceptions of the presented message. When players were presented with either a video or virtual reality footage of the same situations, the group who had viewed the experience in a virtual reality viewer emerged with “greater perceptions of imminence of the environmental risk and involvement with nature”.

Towards Empathy and Equity in Virtual Environments

In the fall of 1927, Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s demonstrated the first successful electronic television and ushered in the golden era of multi-modal information. For the first time in history humans could hear and see events happening beyond their doorsteps and gather a sense of lives lived by those they may never meet. Today we have virtual reality, a technology that is poised to revolutionize the way we learn and interact with one another.

The promise of this medium is not without its faults. The capacity to awaken empathy through virtual experiences is a significant responsibility and in this wild west of a new technology it is our role to make meaning and establish norms that will ensure equity across this new medium. We must work together to ensure that these experiences are safe for all viewers, represent the diversity across our planet, and are inclusive of many different stories.

Every holiday season we watch as the major news outlets connect loved ones on the front lines to their spouses and children at home where tables are one place setting short this year. And as we watch we can’t help but feel the sting of missing a loved one and a tinge of grief for these strangers who are celebrating the season apart. Imagine if the same people, the same 5,000 miles apart, were now able to reach out and touch their loved ones deployed overseas through the use of a fully haptic virtual reality simulation. Stay with me a moment longer and imagine if this newfound tool for cultivating empathy means that just maybe we will no longer need to deploy forces overseas as our understanding and compassion for others has taught us that in the end, we’re really all the same.


Lindsay Portnoy is a cognitive scientist and Chief Learning Officer/co-founder at Killer Snails, a science gaming company building immersive experiences that cultivate curious learners and ignite a love of science.

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Intellectually curious. I follow my ideas. Cognitive scientist, author, educator, activist.

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Dr. Lindsay Portnoy

Dr. Lindsay Portnoy

Intellectually curious. I follow my ideas. Cognitive scientist, author, educator, activist.

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