Study: Virtual Reality May Increase Ability to Understand Other People’s Feelings

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New research claims that virtual reality (VR) can help a person empathize better with others. The study suggests that VR might help increase the empathy of people who have difficulty relating to others. According to the researchers, VR simulations can activate brain networks that increase people's capacity to identify with another person. The simulation can increase empathy by tricking a person's brain into believing that he is experiencing what another person is going through. The study was divided into two stages. During Stage 1, the study's 20 participants were split into two groups and underwent VR immersion training. The VR training involved a female character. One group was immersed in the VR environment from the first-person perspective, which made them feel as if they were the woman. The other group was immersed in the VR environment from the third-person perspective, which let them simply watch the woman. Later in Stage 2, the participants were made to watch a VR simulation of the same woman being yelled at by someone. Those who had experienced the first-person perspective during Stage 1 identified more with the woman, compared to those who had experienced the third-person perspective before. Results showed that the participants who had experienced the first-person perspective had more activity in the part of the brain that controls one's sense of personal space. This means that they felt as though they were in the position of the woman in the simulation. Study lead author Aline de Borst said that using VR increases the participants’ immersion in a given situation. VR gives the illusion that something is happening to the people seeing it, which lets them see the situation from a new perspective. The researchers believe that this VR method can be developed and used to rehabilitate violent offenders who may have little empathy for others.

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