The challenge of empathy

Neuroscientific research has been pointing out ways to create cognitive illusions of feeling in the body of another person through Full Body Ownership Illusions, also referred to as illusory embodiment. In these experiments, psychological and physiological responses of participants suggest that they can feel as if they had a different body, that of a digital avatar, or even a plastic mannequin. It has also been observed that the effects of these  interventions may be translated to real life.
Research using Virtual Reality (VR) has shown that playing with the perspective of a Super Hero can encourage altruistic behavior in real life. In another experiment researchers found that participants with white skin revealed a significant reduction of implicit ethnical bias after seeing themselves in the perspective of a digital avatar with dark skin using VR.

These studies point to a great potential use of Embodiment Virtual Reality (EVR) to stimulate pro-social behaviour and overcome intergroup social barriers.

Empathy is defined in psychology and neuroscience as the ability of one individual to feel another individual’s emotional state while preserving the knowledge about it’s personal origin. Among several phenomena, empathy is related to perspective taking that can lead to prosocial behavior (e.g.: altruism and compassion). These abilities can drive individuals to learn from others experiences and to feel joy by helping another person in need.

The social importance of empathy has been raised in fields of knowledge related to psychology, neuroscience as well as in education and conflict resolution. This becomes evidenced in western European cities dealing with the co-existence of groups with different cultural identities, catalyzed by the refugee diasporas. These abilities are fundamental to foster a culture of tolerance, as “without empathy, we can’t get to conflict resolution, altruism, or peace”.  Beyond any boundaries or ideologies, empathic concern can lead to altruism, and therefore to promote a better society in which individuals would care more about each other, no matter their differences.

Year

2012 – now

Concepts

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

Body Swap

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Embodied Narratives

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The Machine to Be Another

The Machine to Be Another (TMBA) is an Embodiment Virtual Reality System that allows individuals to experience the world through the eyes and body of another. By combining virtual reality, cognitive sciences and performance, TMBA is a system that offers users the possibility to see themselves in a different body while moving and interacting with the space with realistic tactile feedback. TMBA works as an open platform to co-design immersive experiences in which one can step into the shoes of another.

This long term research on how to promote empathy has been used to address issues like cultural bias, immigration, generational bonding, conflict resolution and body extension, between many others. Furthermore, as a low budget and open system (Creative Commons non Commercial Share Alike), TMBA works as an embodiment VR tool with possible implications in storytelling and first-person VR filmmaking as well as in fields like education, psychology and healthcare. 

Finally, TMBA system (that combines interaction protocols, narratives, hardware and software, protocols) is build on an open community of creators, scientists, performers and participants gathered by a common dream of building an empathetic society.

The overarching goal of BeAnotherLab is to use technoscientific knowledge critically to promote human integration instead of alienation.

The metodology

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 group has defined methodological approaches for interacting with individuals from communities facing different types of social prejudice, and on how to present this content to a general audience.

Empathic listening, for performers

When we are working with specific individuals or communities interested to share a personal story or reflexion, we perform a series of workshops in which we basically present our technology and listen to how people would like to use it. This process consist mostly on listening and engaging in conversation. After some interactions, we proceed to create new content or experiences  with these participants. The social and affective context that emerges from this interaction is a central part of our methodology.

Debriefing, for users

We also relate to users with an empathic listening approach that happens in the process right after the VR experience. Whenever our work is presented, we suggest to have a debriefing area, to allow users to breath, drink water and talk to each other about their experiences. When presenting more sensitive content, our team also takes part in this debrief.

Interdisciplinary collaborations

We have worked with neuroscientists, artists, psychologists, grassroots organisations, physicians, therapists, technologists, pedagogical engineers, social activists in a wide range of subjects on differente analysis or possible implications of our work. This interdisciplinary contribution and interaction approach has being a nurturing the development of the project and allowing other specialists to conduct their research based on ours.