The Future of Empathy

The Wall Street Journal published the article, “The Future of Therapy: Becoming Someone Else in VR” back in April of this year. I remember reading it, being enthralled by the technology, and constantly wondering, will this actually work and do we need this? Ironically, as I was browsing the journal yesterday, I saw this article reappear, rated one of the top ten “Best stories of 2018.” This again got me thinking… how will this work? Do we need technology to help us become more empathetic to others pain?

To give you a brief overview, the article dives deep into the exploratory research of Mel Slater, a computer scientist and Distinguished Investigator in the psychology department at the University of Barcelona, and Mavi Sanchez- Vives, a neuroscientist and research professor at the IDIBAPS Biomedical Research Institute. A power-couple to say the least, Mel and Mavi direct the Event Lab at the University of Barcelona, which aims to explore and create virtual-reality experiences that enable users to embody another person in a computer generated world.

“In a Barcelona lab, two researchers are using virtual simulations to build empathy and understanding, from body-swapping to sessions with Freud…” –Elizabeth Bernstein, The Wall Street Journal


In the Event Lab, these researchers are working hard to develop VR technology that can be used, at the current moment, to rehabilitate domestic violence offenders. This technology allows a person to embody someone else; for instance, in a domestic violence simulation, the abuser becomes the abused and vice versa to expand perspective, emotion, and thoughts. Key to this technology is body ownership; it gives the user a body, full range of motion, and the ability to touch and feel their surroundings. The ultimate goal being, “to help people understand what it feels like to literally be someone else” (Bernstein, 2018).

To date, research suggests, “abusive men typically have an inability to recognize fear in a woman’s face” (Bernstein, 2018). So, Sanchez- Vives set out to test this, and determine whether it can be solved. Their research in Barcelona, using a VR scenario of domestic violence, provides experiential training to male domestic violence offenders by having them embody a verbally abused female, and see what that looked like and felt like. Results suggest that the males did indeed get significantly better at recognizing a woman’s fear—expanding empathy…

Core to this research is perspective taking. It all circles back to the familiar saying, “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” Yet, this can be really hard. It’s not easy removing your own thoughts and emotions from experiences in order to consider how someone else may be feeling or interpreting the same situation. And this research suggests that even those who are good at thinking through someone else’s emotions, may still not have the capacity to actually “walk” or embody someone else.

I found this article to be a good reminder that you really never quite know what someone else is going through. It’s true the empathy stems from listening to others, being available, picking up on subtle facial expressions and body cues signaling distress. With family members or close friends, you may already be good at providing empathy when they are downtrodden, by leaning in and working to understand the issue they face. These are skills that humans can harness, with ample time, practice, and patience.

Yet, how often do we stop and think about how our own actions may be hurting others? Can you think of the last time you recognized a hurt you gave before someone else brought it up to you? It seems as if the situations that we actively participate in, the situations in which we may also suffer, are the hardest times to recognize and provide empathy to others.

Fortunately, there are small steps to take to start to combat this, to expand personal perspective and our own empathy. To start, use the next upsetting situation, when you feel angry, upset, betrayed etc. to challenge yourself.

Research finds that when angry or upset, humans tend to focus on it. We stew over challenging situations, the players, factors, consequences that impact us; it consumes all energy and free mental capacity. So, the next time you feel this way, instead of succumbing to self-centered stewing, or solely thinking about all the negatives the situation brings to you, think of how the other person may be feeling. What’s their perspective? What may disadvantage, hurt, or trouble them as they face the same predicament? How are my actions hurting them?

While hardly as powerful as embodying another person through VR simulated situations, this may suffice as a first step in gaining awareness, perspective, and empathy in situations that impact both ourselves and another. And, practice is key. One has to continually practice the skills of ‘seeing the other side’ and ‘feeling what another may feel’ in order to begin to walk in another’s shoes.