Embodied Simulation and Stimulating Empathy

Virtual reality now allows for first-personal embodied perspectival access to another person’s point of view through a live stream connecting a user wearing a headset to a performer wearing cameras. BeAnotherLabs claim that this experience of “embodied simulation” stimulates empathy. However, from a research directive, this begs a lot of terms to be operationally defined.

Specifically, what is meant by “empathy” in this context? In the history of social cognition research, the problem of other minds and the problem of empathy point towards the imperceivable aspects of another’s mental contents and the importance of inference from behavior and actions. While I do not agree with these theories and lean more towards interaction theory (IT), it is difficult to wrap my head around how empathy could be experienced without the learned social cues. When interacting with someone, we see their facial expressions, eye movements, tiny muscle twitches, gestures, head movements, etc. Thus, having first-personal access to someone else’s embodied perspective does not give access to the normal cues that we use to read a person’s emotional and mental state.

So, the question becomes — what form of empathy does this simulation actually allow for? It seems clear that something new is accessed, but what is that something?

I experience someone else in the mode that I usually experience myself only. What was once most at-home, personal, and all-encompassing is now replaced with something else which is related and in a sense belonging to someone else.

This brought me back to Merleau-Ponty who writes that the body is different from other objects in that we cannot turn away from it and it is constantly perceived. He writes, “Thus, the body is an object which is always with me.” (p. 119)

Within the history of virtual reality, “presence” is a crucial empirical exploratory measure of the effectiveness of the media in that it genuinely allows for a user to feel transported to and present within a fully immersive simulated environment or situation. With first-person fully immersive virtual reality, the question becomes, what does it mean to experience present in someone else’s point-of-view? Will one feel present as this other person, with this other person, or in the simulation of this person’s experiential reality? Will the user feel embodied in the virtual reality simulation of someone else’s point of view? And, if so, what does that mean for and about the experience?

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