The Realization that Everyone Else Also Has a Rich and Intricate Subjective Life

One of the main limitations of empathy is that it triggers a deep and intense emotional response to another person or persons. As such, empathy is narrow in scope. We empathize most readily with those who are close in proximity and kinship, those who we can easily imagine ourselves to be. Paul Bloom argues that empathy does not drive moral action and decision making, and to this point I agree.

I realize that I am tackling the problem of empathy from the wrong field. The reason that I got into working with Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmened Reality (AR) was because I wanted to solve a communication challenge, which is the difficulty we have in understanding the subjective lives of others. Specifically, I think that our capacity to empathize is linked to our flexibility to re-conceptualize what it means to be a self. The reason why VR and AR are important in this equation is that they can open new perspectives on self and other.

So, when today my colleague said that sharing a first-person point of view simultaneously with another was not novel enough to garner conference acceptance, I thought, “I’m not in the right place.” I never want to have to make cool technology just for the sake of showing off. This is done for the love of discovering other minds, a love that I have felt my entire life.

Also, let’s just take a moment to step back here. Yes, I did say sharing a first-person point of view. Sharing an embodied perspective. Performing an action from this perspective together at the same time. How is that not novel??! Our whole experience as we know it happens from this point of view, linked with a sense of self or “I”. We have never before shared it with a “you” in any way, it’s a physical impossibility. (Lovemaking is the closest.) So, I’m not just talking about seeing from another’s viewpoint, which I admit is also incredibly cool (Machine to Be Another have already brilliantly accomplished this), but actually seeing one’s own viewpoint WITH another’s as well, creating a new perspective that is shared.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not novel, and maybe I am crazy, but to me this is the most amazing thing I have ever contemplated making in my whole life. We’re so visually focused as a culture — so fine, let’s use that — and with technology open a gateway to one another’s experience. Let’s visually represent intersubjectivity. Let’s create new ways of doing things together.

When I first read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, I was convinced that if the whole world or any one person in it were to seriously consider the theory for just five minutes, then it would fundamentally change the way that we live our lives. It happened to me, many years ago. I’m not claiming grandeur, but I do think sometimes the greatest insights are the simplest and most obvious little gleaming lights of wisdom that our knowledge-acquisition directs our attention away from. And I think that the nature of first-person experience is the most obvious, ubiquitous, and somehow also altogether elusive and incomprehensible fact of our existence. We struggle to comprehend the simple fact that everything we experience comes from this view, that we are, as Thomas Pynchon writes, “the projector at the planetarium” and David Foster Wallace explains, “the absolute center of it all.” And maybe if we can realize that, and be humbled by it, and question it for perhaps the first time in our lives, then, maybe then — we can realize too that others are also as much a theme of their own existence, as much at the center of it all, as we are. And maybe then we can look into another person’s eyes and see what they project back. Maybe then, just as a calculator allows us to rapidly do mathematics to cognitively offload mental counting, maybe this system could help us to more rapidly, simply, and readily comprehend the subjective being of other people. Specifically those who we see as different from ourselves, those for whom empathy is usually spared last and at the most arduous stretch.

My final point is that I think we spend too much time trying to get machines to do what we already have. We are too scared or too intimidated by the attempt to communicate effectively with one another, that we now have to get machines to do it for us. I thought that I would be working in a field dedicated to creating more empathic humans, but instead I have found that the goal is to create more empathic computers. When psychology began about 175 years ago, much emphasis was placed on psychometrics. Every psychological process was mapped to a physiological correlate. While this practice has been largely debunked, it is still used routinely today but there is little consensus about which correlates matter the most, and context has become essential towards this understanding. Today we are programming computers to recognize our emotions, when we are not so good at doing this even for ourselves (interoception, for instance), let alone for others, and when every discovery in psychology and neuroscience over the last 30 years has indicated that every experience is embedded in a rich matrix of factors, that, when removed, do not produce the same phenomena as the natural world. I am not arguing that this attempt is futile, but that it is important not to cut corners. Also, I feel that so much of our cognitive complexity actually happens between minds rather than within one single mind. What we consider our “rich inner life” would probably not be very rich at all if not for the input from all of the other artifacts and engagements we experience from and with other minds. Our inner life is rich because we inherit thousands of years of wisdom from other lives through our culture, family, and society, and because every time we interact with another subjective being our mind integrates new ways of seeing the world. Right now, this is a crisis for psychology and neuroscience because methodologies are sparse in accommodating this new insight.

The fact is, if we can program a computer to recognize emotions then maybe we can remember how we learned to do this ourselves, if at all. And maybe we can help ourselves and one another do this better. In the end, do we want to fall in love with a computer or another person? Because understanding does breed love. We feel incredibly close to those who suddenly voice a private insight or intuition that we thought only we had ever thought about, even if it’s a dead author, or a stranger who made a film. (Thus the gift of art!) And if our computers can start to understand something that we struggle to understand ourselves — our own emotions — then certainly we will feel a rare and special sense of belonging. I’d just prefer that we did that with one another, and not our machines.

And also, I’ll just come back to a point — god, we’re amazing! I’ve spent too much time in my life listening and probing, deeply wondering and contemplating the subjective lives of others, constantly asking, “What is it like to be you?” And what I have seen there is absolutely amazing! My esteemed colleague Matthew Segall put it best, “What luck we have that we get to share this world with other gods.” I’ve never met a person who, given the proper permission to open up (we’re very closed-off from sharing our subjective lives, in general), did not dazzle me in some way. Walt Witman wrote that we contain multitudes. There is so much richness and wonder and new variety of being human expressed within each subjective person. I just love that. Maybe I am a bit crazy in this sense, but I love discovering new varieties of being human.

I lost my grandmother yesterday. Time has gone by really slowly since then, so I had to really think about typing yesterday. My grandmother is the most loving person I have ever known. She was an example for me and for my entire family. My grandmother rarely thought about herself, always put others first. It wasn’t the type of intellectual-understanding love that I crave in my adulthood, but that rare and very deep unconditional love that desires your well-being and prosper, that just wants you to thrive and be happy. My grandmother always told me that I seemed to be keeping busy, and I never thought I could really explain or that she would understand what I was doing, but what I realize now is more valuable was that she thought about me, asked about me every day and would sit and just wish for my happiness, and hope that I would get what I wanted. That’s the kind of love that my grandmother had. Add to this the amazing love that my grandparents had, the most adorable old couple I can even imagine. They would tease one another, endear to one another, support one another, and look after us all with a soft, tender love of two people who just really worked it out on how to stay in love for 65 years, as though it was a young love — they were like newlyweds.

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