The Challenge of Empathy

Neuroscientific research has developed ways to create cognitive illusions, which generate the feeling of having a different body, of being the body of another person. In these neuroscientific experiments, the psychological and physiological responses of research subjects suggested that they felt as if they had a different body. It thereby didn’t matter, if the «new body» was that of a digital avatar or of a plastic mannequin. This is called the Body Transfer Illusion or the Full Body Ownership Illusion. Neuroscientists were curious about the psychological consequences of experiencing oneself as a different body. By using Virtual Reality (VR) in an experimental set-up to facilitate Body Transfer Illusions, the scientists could demonstrate that research subjects with white skin revealed a significant reduction of implicit racial bias after seeing themselves in the first-person perspective of a digital avatar with dark skin. This and many other studies in the burgeoning field of neuroscientific embodiment research got us really excited! How to translate these potentially beneficial effects of laboratory science into pro-social interventions available for everyone?

The neuroscientific research suggests the great potential of Embodiment Virtual Reality (EVR) for a more positive sociality. Embodied VR systems could help to overcome negative stereotyping between groups («intergroup social barriers») and to improve pro-social behaviour by encouraging active perspective-taking, or empathy. Neuroscientists and psychologists commonly define empathy as an individual’s ability to feel another person’s emotional state, while being aware of that feeling’s origin. In this way, empathy is an active perspective-taking, which can be linked to mutual understanding and prosocial behaviour, such as altruism and compassion. The importance of empathy for a positive sociality has been discussed not only in scientific studies but also in applied fields of education, conflict resolution and therapy. BeAnotherLab strongly believes that empathic concern can contribute to a better society in which individuals care for each other, no matter their differences and backgrounds. BeAnotherLab’s goal is to co-create and apply technoscientific knowledge critically to foster human connection, mutual understanding and kindness.

Year

2012 – now

Concepts

Embodiment. VR.   Multicultural.  Research.  Understanding.  Interdisciplinarity.  Community.  Inmersive.  Tolerance.  Innovation.  People.  Functional Diversity.  Art.  Neuroscience.  Empathy.

The Machine To Be Another

The Machine To Be Another (TMBA) is a unique technology which BeAnotherLab began to prototype first in 2012 in Barcelona. TMBA is an Embodiment Virtual Reality (EVR) System that credibly facilitates the Body Transfer Illusion outside of the high-end research institutions of neuroscience. The Machine allows individuals to experience the world through the eyes and body of another person. By combining virtual reality, cognitive sciences and performance art, the system enables users to perceive themselves in a different body, while moving and interacting with realistic tactile feedback with others in space.

The Machine is our key technology. It results from our long-term research on how to foster active perspective-taking and empathic concern. Since 2014, the system has been used to address issues of negative stereotyping in a wide range of contexts. In a transnational and transdisciplinary manner, we move through the art and film world interested in new technologies and subjectivities, perception and storytelling; engage with scientific research (we went back into the laboratories of neuroscience after all); and with a multitude of applied contexts, where matters of immigration, mediation and conflict resolution, as well as care work, (therapeutic) body extension and generational bonding, were key concerns.

As BeAnotherLab we operate under a Creative Commons non-Commercial Share Alike license. This allows us to provide TMBA as an open platform to co-design immersive experiences in which one can step – literally – into the shoes of another. The Machine system combines hardware, software, interaction protocols, narratives and our methodology of situated engagement and empathic listening. It has been built collaboratively and continues to grow through the work of scientists, artists, performers and participants. The Machine is situated in an open community of creators, gathered together by the shared purpose of building a more empathic society.

 

Body Swap / Gender Swap

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Embodied Narratives

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The Methodology

BeAnotherLab works in the intersection of art, science and technology, questioning hierarchies between these different ways of knowing. It approaches them as complementary, overlapping bodies of knowledge instead. Driven by an action-research approach, the lab has developed a range of methodologies for interacting with individuals from communities that face different types of social prejudice, and on how to present this content to a general audience.

Empathic listening, for performers

We work with individuals and their communities interested in sharing a personal story or life experience. We begin by presenting our technology in hands-on workshops to mediate the intricacies of how The Machine system works. Gradually, we elicit how people would like to use The Machine for their benefit. This process consists of deep listening exercises, reflective conversations and the enactment of the system. Together we explore the potential participants see for the technology and how they would like to use it to address specific issues or to explore a topic of interest to them. Working through these questions, the social and affective context that emerges from this interaction is a central part of our methodology. In a process of co-design, we story-board and create new experiences together.

Debriefing, for users

Deep listening is not only an intrinsic part of the production but also of the exhibition of our work. When- and wherever TheMachine is presented, we suggest to include a debriefing area in the installation’s set up. This allows users to process their thoughts and feelings right after the VR experience, to talk to each other and to reflect on their emerging questions and ideas. When we present more sensitive content, our team will take part in this debrief.

Interdisciplinary collaborations

The Machine is a creative tool that encourages active and embodied perspective-taking. BeAnotherLab collaborates with people who find that technology useful for their own purposes, agendas and interests. Our expertise is rooted in the fluency with which we switch registers to enable interdisciplinary communication and mutual understanding. We have worked with neuroscientists, psychologists, physicians, therapists, technologists, engineers, human resources managers, grassroot organisers, artists and activists among many others. Our interdisciplinary collaborations have spanned across a wide range of subjectivities, postionalities, topics and issues. These working experiences continue to nurture the development of our project, while also allowing others to conduct their own research based on these explorations.