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:
- Fosters insight into different perspectives and promotes genuine open-mindedness
- Discourages hasty and superficial problem examination
- Facilitates construction of more fully elaborated and frequently novel problem models
- Discourages belief rigidity
- Encourages cognitive and personal flexibility
- 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:
- Can Virtual Reality “teach” empathy? Chris Berdik, Feb 15, 2107. The Hechinger Report
- Using virtual reality to make you more empathetic in real life. Marlene Cimons, Nov 12, 2016. The Washington Post
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.
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?
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 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/
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 https://www.digitaltrends.com/features/dt10-we-have-virtual-reality-whats-next-is-straight-out-of-the-matrix/
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.