Can Virtual Reality Make You More Empathetic? A Syrian woman and her child sit in their refugee living space in Lebanon. They are featured in Four Walls, by the International Rescue Committee. Media coverage of tragedy — terrorist attacks, homelessness, the refugee crisis — can be so overwhelming it's numbing. Charities say it can also make it harder to get support. Some are hoping a new form of media will be more persuasive — virtual reality or VR, which they think makes people more empathetic. At a recent New York City fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee, attendees could step away from the mingling and have a more direct connection to the people they were there to help. A few seats were set up where the guests could sit down and put on a VR headset. Once they've donned the headset the guest is in Lebanon. Cheryl Henson, an IRC donor, says that via VR she was in a family's tent, watching children play. "It's a very effective way to feel like you're there in the room because you have a real sense of these are real people," she says. "There's the food, there's the clothes, there's the talk." This sense of really being there is why some fans of VR have dubbed it "You start out in your home and you find out that you've lost your job," Bailenson says.
"You struggle to make rent and you use your body to pick items in your home to sell to try to make your rent so you don't get evicted." Of course, you do get evicted. And you find yourself living in your car. Your car gets towed and you find yourself trying to sleep on a bus. On the bus, you must guard your backpack from thieves all night long. Journalist Vignesh Ramachandran, who participated in the study, says he's read a lot about homelessness but something about the experience of protecting his stuff on the bus got to him. "I just remember thinking like, 'Oh my gosh' you just can't imagine having to constantly be looking out for your safety just when you're trying to get a good night's sleep," he says. "That part was like striking to me." After the VR experience the participants are asked to sign a petition for housing for the homeless. The study will look at whether they or the people who read material and saw a video are more likely to sign. But using VR to promote empathy has its skeptics. , a Yale psychology professor and author of Against Empathy, thinks that if these kinds of VR experiences become common they will be no more effective than any other media. "Empathy — feeling the suffering of other people — is fatiguing. It leads to burnout. It leads to withdrawal," Bloom says. "The best therapists, the best doctors, the best philanthropists are people who don't feel the suffering of others. It's just people who care about others want to help, but do it joyously." Bloom says he may be old school, but he thinks if you really want to get into the head of another human being and understand them, try reading a good novel.
Can't Get 'Can't Get It Out Of My Head' Out Of My Head Earlier today, we had the band Telekinesis here to record a Tiny Desk Concert. While they were warming up, I heard the group's lead singer-songwriter, Michael Benjamin Lerner, picking out the Electric LED Flood Light Orchestra song "Can't Get It out of My Head." He sounded great, and I love that song, so during the performance, I put him on the spot by asking him to do it again. He said he didn't really know the whole song, but he gave it a shot, saying that his father had gotten him into ELO when Michael was growing up. He was a good sport about it. Another one of the producers here, Mike Katzif, is on a mission to find different versions of "Can't Get It out of My Head." My hat's off to him for digging up this live version ELO performed on The Mike Douglas Show. The band does some other songs, but "Can't Get It out of My Head" starts at the 4:42 mark. Now the song is stuck in my head. Or, really, it's just the refrain, repeating over and over again. "I can't get it out of my head," skip, "I can't get it out of my head," skip "I can't..." You get the idea. Bob Boilen talks about a couple of particularly addictive songs on — The ApSci song "Crazy Crazy Insane" and The Phenomenal Handclap Band doing "15 to 20." What's a song you're helpless to stop once it starts playing in your head?