For a fairly long span of its evolutionary history, homo sapiens evolved in tribal settings where the other members of the species they were most likely to encounter were either blood relatives, trading partners, or mortal enemies.
Sometimes (often?) these lines would blend together, but for the most part, the groups of humans that cooperated effectively with relatives and close trading partners outlasted, assimilated, or exterminated the ones that did a poorer job at the same game.
A host of research has been done on the evolution of cooperation and the game theory behind the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, but the long-and-short of it is that for most of the history of our species, humans have done a much better job cooperating with people who looked at least vaguely like them and spoke roughly the same language they did.
Along that same thread, many human cultures, belief systems, and identities of the world have done a consistent job relegating those who didn’t have sufficient overlap in those areas into the category of “others,” worthy of fear, distrust, contempt…and all the various actions those points of view tend to generate.
How Virtual Reality Can Create Empathy and Mutual Understanding
“There is one planet, but there are billions of worlds.” – Mooji
Virtual Reality offers a tremendous breakthrough in storytelling technology.
What makes it such a breakthrough is the concept of “presence.”
Not to be confused with the same word in a spiritual context (or is it?), “presence” in VR is the sense you get that you are actually there: Your mind believes that it is present in the simulated reality your eyes are seeing.
There are a number of substantial technical hurdles to maintaining nausea-free presence in virtual reality, but one-by-one, the various teams of engineers, designers and product people at the major companies developing VR are lining them up and knocking them down.
So what does all this have to do with empathy?
Despite the frequent bouts of emotional clumsiness, stupidity, ignorance, and mindlessness that humans seem to share (this author included), humans seem to want many of the same things for ourselves and our children: to be happy, loved, whole, appreciated, connected to something we believe to be important, and at peace.
While beliefs about the effective paths to attaining those things seem to be as diverse as the entire population of Earth, the differences that cultures, familial environments, genetic predispositions, tribal loyalties, personal identities, and belief systems create in us surely seem intense, they also seem far less profound than the similarities borne of millions of years of collective evolution and the human experience that we all share.
The problem is that while it’s easy to say that the extraordinarily diverse range of expressions, values, beliefs, identities, cultural and personal narratives pale in comparison to the what we all share, it can be more challenging to feel it in the core of your being.
Perhaps, that is, until you can strap on a virtual reality headset and see for yourself.
Why A Widespread Understanding Of Our Common Humanity Matters So Utterly Much
The difference between reading the above or seeing it play out on TV and FEELING it happen in virtual reality is orders of magnitude of intensity: When you read it, you have to work to imagine what it is like. When you see it on a TV or movie screen, it’s easy to create distance.
But when you are virtually present in the scene, watching it happen as if through your own eyes, immersed in the sights and noises…you experience some part of the terror and sadness first hand.
That is the difference between understanding our shared humanity on an intellectual level and feeling it in your bones.
Before the 21st century, the experiences of the children living in remote villages in Yemen or the mountains of Pakistan had for all intents and purposes no potential to impact the lives of the denizens of Manhattan.
But in the 21st century, this changes.
If these children, whose minds are developing in a world of persistent fear, trauma, and drone-delivered death, grow to hate America, this hatred can metastasize and land on our shores and our cities.
To most Americans living at home, the reality of these children’s lives, living in the shadow of drones, is utterly invisible. Even if we hear about it on TV or in the written news (and we rarely do), it’s easy and natural to disconnect from it and compartmentalize it as “just the way it is.”
For most of human history, this tendency — to remove oneself emotionally from the suffering of people in the out-group — seemed to be an essential survival mechanism: people in the out-group didn’t just have offensive ideas, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world, they may have actually been mortal threats to you.
But in the 21st century, more so than at any other time in human history, we are one world: the suffering of people on one side of the planet spills over..
At this stage in our evolution, the human species still hasn’t grasped its fundamental interconnectedness:
Sure, we can talk about how these distinctions have become destructive. Some of us may even believe it.
But without the ability to connect deeply with the experiences of humans we’ve never met, whose realities we’ve never felt — it can be challenging to sense our shared humanity more deeply than that.
On the one hand, we have no choice: if we collectively fail to acknowledge our shared humanity, to surface and challenge the mental patterns that fuel division and conflict, it’s far from clear how the challenges the 21st century presents will
On the other hand, it is a choice: if we choose to seek out, discover, and learn to embody the most wondrous aspects of our minds — our capacities for wonder, curiosity, empathy, compassion, mindfulness, and inner space— and from there extend these capacities across the lines that have divided us for a long, long time— we have the potential to create abundance, end suffering, and experience a completely unprecedented world.
Maybe we just need some cooler tools.