The Virtual Search for IRL Empathy

As the days grow shorter and the wind is colder, nearly every culture has a holiday that celebrates light; over flames, many of us will tell other our stories this season. These tales can foster empathy—and, some experts hope, so can new technologies.

Lisa Genova’s novels make it seem possible. Her background in neuroscience allowed us a window into life with Huntington’s disease in Inside the O’Briens, autism in Love Anthony, traumatic brain injury in Left Neglected, early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in Every Note PlayedAs a doctor, Genova knows the science; as a gifted storyteller, she allows us to experience the challenges her characters face in their diagnoses.

Can we ever understand what others are experiencing? While reading Every Note Played, I felt that I was part of Richard’s family. In another way, Dr. Jason Jerald hopes to make that kind of feeling even easier to access.

Jerald, who wrote The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality, defined VR at a recent workshop that as “a computer-generated digital environment that can be experienced and interacted with as if that environment was real.” He also spoke of it as an empathy machine. “We have the opportunity,” Jerald hopes, “to create and experience new worlds and change the real world.” 

Carrie Shaw began caring for her mom when she was 19 years old and her mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Shaw is not alone: More than 50 million Americans and over a billion people on our planet have some type of disability, and many women become caretakers for elderly parents or family members with serious health challenges. Embodied Labs is using VR to give them critical insight into the lives of the people who rely on them.

Through a new program, Embodied Labs is creating a more caring community of health helpers. They’re using virtual reality storytelling to allow people an opportunity to experience the world of the patient they are caring for. Their team now asks the question: “If healthcare providers-in-training could step into the perspectives of the patient and other members of the care team, would this make them more effective providers?” 

Through immersive VR experiences, you can simulate a mission to fight in an aircraft or learn how to navigate a new spaceship. You can travel the world and try on shoes in different sizes, shapes and colors. But VR can also be a powerful tool for education and opening minds. Imagine the difference it would make to understand not being able to reach for the spoon to feed yourself, or not being able to see on one side of the room. Imagine putting on those shoes and stepping into someone else’s experiences.

It’s encouraging to know that empathy for others can be taught through literature and virtual reality—hopefully, all caregivers can be trained in compassionate ways so they can help their patients and our family members in ways that promote healing and tenderness. It’s also worth considering where else the impact of VR-fueled empathy could take us—and how pivotal being able to walk in women’s shoes could be in the fight to continue changing the world.



Lisa Niver is the author of Brave-ish, One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty and an award-winning travel expert who has explored 101 countries and six continents. She has articles in publications from AARP: The Magazine and AAA Explorer to WIRED and Wharton Magazine, as well as her site We Said Go Travel. For her print, podcast, digital and broadcast segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist 22 times. Niver is also the host of the award-nominated podcast Make Your Own Map.