Trends and Futures

Day 4: The effects of VR on Body and Mind: Empathy and Embodiment

By  Glen O’Grady, Frederick Chew and Craig Gall Australian National University

Today let’s start by taking a step back from VR to look at the importance of empathy and embodiment for learning.

Why empathy is important in learning?

It is widely understood that we learn by constructing knowledge and meaning from experiences. These experiences can be from self and through social interaction. Learning happens with the flow of both information and creativity between ourselves and the world around us. When we interact and learn, they require us to understand ourselves by understanding the needs and condition of those around us, this is where being able to empathise helps. Empathy encourages us to take collective measurements rather than those singular, forcing us into an intellectual interdependence that may lead to new syntheses.

Empathy is not just about hugs and a pat on the back when you feel sorry for someone. Empathy is a skill that can make us more productive when we work and helps us to cooperate with others. It can motivate us to be unselfish and prosocial.

In following video, Roman Krznaric theorizes that the 20th century is the age of introspection, but the 21st is one of “stepping outside ourselves” to experience the world through other perspectives, something increasingly important in an uber-connected society.

These are a few benefits that relates to empathy in learning:

  1. Fosters insight into different perspectives and promotes genuine open-mindedness
  2. Discourages hasty and superficial problem examination
  3. Facilitates construction of more fully elaborated and frequently novel problem models
  4. Discourages belief rigidity
  5. Encourages cognitive and personal flexibility
  6. Practices persistent probing, engaged examination of an issue in alternation with flexibility (Gallo)

 “What is it like to walk in someone else’s shoes? Books allow us to imagine it, and movies allow us to see it, but VR is the first medium that actually allows us to experience it.” – NICK MOKEY

Extra Reading: These articles explore in more depth the potential of VR for enhancing empathy:

 What is the importance of this embodiment to education?

Since the 90s cognitive science has built up widely accepted theories of the mind as an embodied process, rather than the abstract model based on input-output computational processes with a complete disconnect between mind and body. (Froese, 2014)  There are a number schools of thought on embodied cognition and the affects these have on how we learn.

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One theory is that our brain relies on our body to function. This seems obvious, but perhaps less appreciated is the idea that the way we think is dependent upon how we choose to use our body. In the simplest sense how we use our sensory capacities influences what we think. A more complex model suggests multisensory activations and connectivity occur at the very early stages of perceptual processing; in other words, areas of the brain that have long been viewed as being ‘sensory specific’ appear to be regulated by multisensory modulations (Ghazanfar and Schroeder 2006, Driver and Noesselt 2008, Watkins 2007, 2006). Such findings of multisensory interactions in how our brain process experience, raise the question of whether any brain regions can be fully characterized through their unisensory response properties. So what we touch, feel, move, taste, smell, hear, etc. can influence how think about something we perceive through sight.

Another school of thought is brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Meaning our bodies have a capacity through action, in our reality, to demonstrate a form of cognition independent of the computation we do in our brain. Brains In common sense terms we might think about the conceptual idea of muscle memory as illustrative of what embodied cognition means. Another aspect of this is “cognitive offloading” the concept of using our body or environment to lower the cognitive load on our brains allowing a more efficient cognitive process. A very simple example of offloading to the body is counting on your fingers, and offloading to the environment may simply be taking notes. Both of these can allow the brain to process tasks that would otherwise be too complex as we can only hold so much information at one time.

Both these theories support the concept of, embodied cognition, that our body has a cognitive function or that at the very least our cognition is influenced by body.  Embodied teaching, the pedagogical theory of learning not simply as a passive information transfer process, but a far more complex multisensory, embodied process raises the question as to whether learning can be enhanced by asking students to be “more active” in the classroom and engage in learning activities that require greater embodiment.

Extra Reading: For further information on embodied cognition, ‘Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important’

Can VR create an effective embodied experience?

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Already substantial research has been done on embodiment in VR, and users taking ownership of virtual limbs and even full avatars. Some of the more interesting uses of embodiment in VR take users beyond just a simulated reality, beyond their own senses and physical limitations. The following video covers some work from one lab working on embodiment in VR in 2014 before the commercial release of HMDs. Event Lab, University of Barcelona: Positive Illusions of Self in Immersive Virtual Reality

With an understanding of these affordances of VR there is little value to just using VR to emulating our current education processes, although it could make online learning more akin to face-to-face. For VR to have true value in education it needs to go beyond this. Combining what we know about embodiment and empathy, with what we know about immersion and presence (day 2 & 3), there is clearly potential to create some truly profound experiences. Groups are already exploring this potential in various disciplines, and some well-crafted VR applications have been shown to have real world physiological and psychological affects which can extend beyond the time spent in the virtual world. Here are a few examples of research that has been done on the real-world changes that VR can make, pain reduction during operations or for burn patents (Hoffman, 2000), treatment of phobias (Carlin, 1997), Rehabilitation and physical therapy (Laver, 2012).

Tom Furness, the “Grandfather” of VR, talks on some of the profound learning environments that can be created with VR using the concepts of embodiment, empathy, presence and immersion that we have covered over the past two days – ‘Grandfather of VR, Tom Furness on Embodied Cognition’

Here is the entire video:


Watch the following video from: Event Lab, University of Barcelona: 

Discuss the following questions in the forum. 

  • Tom Furness mentions the concept of spacial memory and “mind palaces” in the short clip above. What would be in your mind palace?
  • How do we bring empathy into classroom or teach empathy, and can VR help teach empathy or can feeling empathy through VR help with engagement?
  • How do you think the sense of embodiment will change the way we behave online in social VR environments?


Bailey, J. O., Bailenson, J. N., & Casasanto, D. (2016). When does virtual embodiment change our minds?. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 25(3), 222-233.Shin, D-H. (2017). The Role of Affordances in the Experience of Virtual Reality Learning: Technology and Affective Affordances in Virtual Reality. Telematics and Informatics

Carlin, A. S., Hoffman, H. G., & Weghorst, S. (1997). Virtual reality and tactile augmentation in the treatment of spider phobia: a case report. Behaviour research and therapy, 35(2), 153-158.

Everhart, R., Elliott, K., Pelco, L. E., Westin, D., Briones, R., & Peron, E. (2016). Empathy activators: Teaching tools for enhancing empathy development in service-learning classes.

Froese, T., Iizuka, H., & Ikegami, T. (2014). Embodied social interaction constitutes social cognition in pairs of humans: a minimalist virtual reality experiment. Scientific reports, 4. Schubert, T., Friedmann, F., & Regenbrecht, H. (1999). Embodied presence in virtual environments. Visual representations and interpretations, 20(5687), 269-278.

Kasl, E., & Yorks, L. (2014). Do I Really Know You? Do You Really Know Me? And, How Important Is It that We Do? Relationship and Empathy in Differing Learning Contexts.

Krznaric, R. (2014). Empathy: A handbook for revolution. Random House.

Laver, K., George, S., Thomas, S., Deutsch, J. E., & Crotty, M. (2012). Virtual reality for stroke rehabilitation. Stroke, 43(2), e20-e21.

McNerney, S. (2011, November 4th). A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain, Scientific America [web log post]. Retrieved July 3rd, 2017, from

Mokey N. (2016, December 19th). We Have Virtual Reality. What’s Next Is Straight Out of The Matrix, Digital Trends [web log post]. Retrieved July 7th, 2017, from

Roth, D., Lugrin, J. L., Büser, J., Bente, G., Fuhrmann, A., & Latoschik, M. E. (2016, March). A simplified inverse kinematic approach for embodied vr applications. In Virtual Reality (VR), 2016 IEEE (pp. 275-276). IEEE.

Schubert, T., Friedmann, F., & Regenbrecht, H. (1999). Embodied presence in virtual environments. Visual representations and interpretations, 20(5687), 269-278. Hoffman, H. G., Patterson, D. R., & Carrougher, G. J. (2000). Use of virtual reality for adjunctive treatment of adult burn pain during physical therapy: a controlled study. The Clinical journal of pain, 16(3), 244-250.

Sun, K. L. (2016). EMPATHY IN STEM EDUCATION. Taking Design Thinking to School: How the Technology of Design Can Transform Teachers, Learners, and Classrooms, 147.


8 thoughts on “Day 4: The effects of VR on Body and Mind: Empathy and Embodiment

  1. * What would be in your mind palace?

    The method of loci (mind palace) technique is not one I normally employ. As a software systems designer I work with abstract concepts not easily reducible to visual representation in only three dimensions (four if time is included). Computer science uses many visual diagramming techniques and notations for teaching, but over-reliance on these may hold back advanced students.

    * How do we bring empathy into classroom or teach empathy, and can VR help teach empathy or can feeling empathy through VR help with engagement?

    One way to use VR for teaching empathy is to allow the student to see themselves from someone else’s perspective. This approach was suggested to me yesterday by Prof . Robert Fitzgerald at University of Canberra.

    * How do you think the sense of embodiment will change the way we behave online in social VR environments?

    VR might be useful if it can overcome the usual sense of isolation engendered by the Internet. This might be useful for reducing the incidence of inappropriate behavior on-line, if the perpetrator can get the sense that these are real people out there, like them, with real feelings. However, there is the risk the opposite may happen and VR will just make this seem more like a video game.

    1. Hey Tom: One way to use VR for teaching empathy is to allow the student to see themselves from someone else’s perspective.

      I think this is a nice point, however I postulate that this would only work if the experience of seeing themselves from someone else’s perspective invokes some emotion that is “shared”. Chris’s story below illustrates clearly how empathy is driven by an emotive experience. So your last point Tom that VR might be useful if people get a sense of real people with real feelings is precisely the point being made about empathy. The research about VR on the visceral nature of a virtual reality event seems to lend itself to this emotive experience. However, as we have discussed earlier the experience needs to be carefully designed (ie there needs to be a well design narrative that connects with what they see and hear) to foster the outcome of empathy – it just doesn’t happen because it is a VR experience.

      The current challenge for VR is the nature of interaction. In most VR experiences we have looked at, the focus is on the user interfacing with an environment made up of virtual places and people that seem very real and are programmed (using AI) to act in ways to invoke responses by the user, but one could argue as you do Tom, that this is still somewhat limiting even though a lot of work is being done to enhance the embodied experience. The next conceptual leap in VR will be how to incorporate enhanced interaction between real people within these VR environments.

  2. When I was in year 10, we had a guest teacher in our history class. For about 20 minutes (but it seemed much longer) he taught us Russian, except that he taught us Russian in Latvian. So the point of the class was to learn Russian, but his instruction was all in Latvian, and every time we made a mistake or, more often, failed to give him any answer because we had no idea that he was asking us a question, this huge bear of a man would berate us in Latvian. One of the students in the class had Latvian parents, so he got most of what was going on, and the teacher would joke with him about how stupid we all were, etc. After 20 minutes or so he stopped speaking Latvian (and Russian) and began to speak to us in English about how it felt to immigrate to Australia (from Latvia) in the 1950s, but our cognitive appreciation of his story was no where near as impacting as the experience of the first part of the class. So… no VR, but a great lesson on empathy! But one that could easily be adapted to a VR experience.

    1. Wow – that sounds like a really powerful experience! I lived in Germany for 4 years, and really began to better understand how difficult it is to live in a foreign country and experience the ‘he/she should just learn the language’ attitude. Now I have a lot more empathy for foreigners not speaking great English, but doing their best.
      I also find the ideas of Tom (above) with respect to VR potentially limiting cyber-bulling intriguing. Using VR to boost empathy could potentially make the world a better place?!

  3. See is believing or not?
    I agree with scientific foundation that our brains could be trained. I remember there was an experiment training our brains to think lefty if right handed (probably BBC documentary). That’s why I think VR can help in many ways of teaching, in favour of designers’ perspectives though.

  4. How do we bring empathy into classroom or teach empathy, and can VR help teach empathy or can feeling empathy through VR help with engagement?

    I think the most powerful way to bring empathy into the classroom is through narrative. Humans are inherently storytellers, and a well-constructed, well-presented story is the most natural and effective way to encourage empathy. VR can be used to construct stories which are more immersive and thus hopefully have more impact (as we’ve previously discussed).

    How do you think the sense of embodiment will change the way we behave online in social VR environments?

    I find Tom’s ideas on this question absolutely fascinating, as there does indeed seem like there is the potential for both types of reaction; the limiting or increasing of that sense that what we do online does not impact the ‘real’ world.

  5. I think VR can help to bring empathy into the classroom. Films are great at telling stories, and they can be quite immersive. VR goes a step further by shortening the distance between the viewer and the situation. The abolition of slavery is a great example. Students can be put in the shoes of a slave to experience that life.

  6. On VR and promoting empathy – I find so much potential in using VR to educate people about accessibility thru disability simulations much like the migraine VR that we saw in day 1. I know there are so many debates against disability simulations but if the lessons and other learning activities around it are designed properly, it’s an excellent way to teach empathy because it allows the learner to experience the disability. I don’t think VR alone can achieve engagement.

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