How VR can dissolve your ego and unlock your empathy

By being someone else, and seeing and discovering the world through the eyes of other people, that can only increase our empathy... and decrease our own egocentric view of the world.

Danfung Dennis: VR has this unique ability to really take you there and that’s sort of something I’ve been trying to do in traditional still images and documentary film. And those mediums have great power to influence, but I was always frustrated with the inability to really take a first-person subjective experience and let someone see it for themselves. And VR can start to do that. I can place people into worlds that they may never otherwise see and experience something firsthand in a way that is very different than watching a film. You recall it as a memory.

Instead of “I saw a movie,” “I actually was there in this experience.” And so those memories actually code in a stronger way. And I think that allows us to reflect and process them in a more personal way.

You have an emotional connection and you get as close to being in their position as possible.

It’s not completely a first-person perspective—and there is some testing and research around that where it could actually embody someone else, that’s a little bit harder. But right now we know we can at least be very close. And when you are very close to someone and you’re seeing what they’re experiencing, you start to internalize that. We have these mirror neurons that we can feel what other people are feeling.

And that reflection that I think is invoked from these powerful experiences can start to foster empathy for the other.

And it can dissolve your own ego and help you take the perspective of someone else. And I think this special ability of VR is really important for the urgent crises that we’re facing, especially climate change, which can be hard to dig into, to really lean into, because it seems so big and abstract.

But when you are experiencing climate change right in the places that it’s happening you feel like it’s here, that you’re getting this glimpse into the future of a world of extreme weather. Of dried out drought desert conditions. Of refugees. Of pristine ecosystems collapsing and being destroyed.

And so when you can actually experience these events as if you were there, you internalize them. And I think that starts to lead to this process of, “Well am I participating in it? Am I consuming fossil fuels that I don’t need to? Can I divest from some of the industries that are responsible for this crisis?”

And so I think that reflection is really important because it leads to, or is necessary to lead to, action in one’s own life.

And there’s a whole threshold of different actions one can take to engage with this incredible environmental problem that we’re facing.

And so this chain of events I think can be triggered through a singular powerful experience. And so with this medium, we can convey not just information. We can convey emotional fidelity in a way that we haven’t been able to do with such clarity.

And so we can really feel what it’s like to be a mother in the deserts of Somalia trying to find food for her children and having to flee to the outskirts of cities and to huge camps—and seeing that they’re really just trying to care for their families just as we would do if we were there.

And so I think it has this ability to help us invoke the empathy that we all have and cultivate the compassion and the action that is needed to address so many of the world's problems.

VR could very well be a greater storytelling medium than video games and TV. By being someone else, and seeing and discovering the world through the eyes of other people, that can only increase our empathy... and decrease our own egocentric view of the world. Documentarian Danfung Dennis thinks that virtual reality is an untapped resource that we should keep our eyes on (literally and figuratively), as the right story at the right time could change the world. Imagine a congressman from Texas watching climate change happen at the polar ice caps before their very eyes. It's a powerful prospect. Danfung Dennis is the founder of Condition One, a VR production and technology studio that has created VR experiences for National Geographic, The New York Times, Google, and Hulu.

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