The first time I put on Virtual Reality (VR) goggles and earphones I felt incredibly secure. Hit me with the scary stuff, I said. Of course I would be able to remember that I was standing in the middle of my own living room and not being attacked in zombieland. I believe it took me a total of ten seconds before I screamed out loud and pushed off the VR-gear from my head. It literally felt as if I was standing in some dystopian world where zombies had surrounded me from all angles and were slowly walking towards me. After this experience I have only tried the nice VR-stuff such as meeting a whale while standing on a shipwreck on the bottom of the sea or drawing magical things that I then could literally walk around and right into.
Have you ever tried VR? If you haven’t I hope you will get the opportunity some time. It’s a real cool experience! But besides being great fun to play with, there are other interesting aspects of VR to be considered as well.
Virtual Reality helps us understand other people. This is one reason why VR can change our world, I heard in a talk I was invited to recently. Ylva Hansdotter is the woman who gave the talk and she is on a mission to see how VR can make this world a better place. She has worked as a VR executive at HTC Vive where she also directed a program linking VR projects to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (talk about a cool job!).
I found her statement fascinating, but it also made me a bit uneasy. Have we as human beings collectively become so bad at understanding and thus empathizing with other people that we are in need of virtual experiences to help us make the world a better place?
With VR, you can for example experience what it is like to be a refugee in Syria. You can also feel what it’s like to be a growing tree, from starting as a seed inside the dark soil, all the way to becoming the largest tree in the forest. You can then notice what happens when there is a fire nearby. Or people start harvesting the trees around you. Apparently by putting on VR gear you can come incredibly close to feeling like a tree being threatened by climate change. It makes most people cry, Ylva Hansdotter said.
I can really see how VR can contribute to us empathizing more with other living beings on this planet. But I also hope we collectively won’t forget that there is so much we can do also in the real world, to achieve the exact same thing! The world bubble comes to mind when I write this. You know this concept that we all live in our own bubble where it’s quite comfortable because we surround ourselves with people very much alike us? Especially in Sweden I notice this quite a lot, perhaps even more because I’m originally not from here.
I remember for example many years ago moving from the north part of Stockholm to the south part of Stockholm. So many stockholmers in my bubble commented on this, you wouldn’t believe! Apparently it’s a thing people seldom do in Stockholm; move from one side of the city to another. Either you are a north-of-the-city-person or you’re a south-of-the-city-person and you don’t move between these two. It’s just the way it is in Stockholm, in the eyes of many. So funny…
When I worked in Stockholm City before I moved to Spain I started eating my lunch at a café nearby my office. I then did a quite un-swedish thing again: I talked to the owners of the café. After some time I invited them home (again: not common in Sweden) and we shared an amazing meal and talked for hours. These two people are today two of my and my husband’s closest friends and I’m incredibly grateful to have them in my life. You wouldn’t believe (again) the reactions of some people in the bubble around me! Apparently you don’t befriend people in that way, and especially not when they are 10-15 years younger (!) than you are yourself. Also quite funny…
During the refugee-crisis of 2016 my family and I ended up hosting two people in our home for a while, because they did not have any other place to live. We did not know these people at all. However we trusted our intuition and it felt really good to share some of our wealth in life with them. But you wouldn’t believe how some people in my bubble reacted on us doing this. Apparently this also is a thing; it seems more socially acceptable to give money to charity and let people solve their own situations than to open your home to strangers in crisis. Not so funny anymore…
I try my very best to be aware of the bubble I’m living in. It scares me to notice how many people seem completely unaware of their own bubble. It also scares me to think of all the ways I live and make decisions based on me existing in my bubble, where I might be able to make better decisions if I would step out of it. But how can I do that when I’m not aware? So awareness, people, that’s again the thing I come back to. Awareness about how I am living my life, what decisions I make and why. To train awareness for the rest of my life has become one of my most important commitments in life.
To me, awareness is a key in empathizing with other people. Being aware of my own biases, my own bubble, gives me the ability to become real and out of that, I believe, true compassion can arise. I think using VR to virtually walk in someone else’s shoes for a while is brilliant and a fascinating tool for us to use in order to become more aware and empathetic towards other people, especially in situations that we normally can’t experience otherwise. But to me, in the end nothing beats looking a real person in the eyes and creating true connection in the field between two human beings. It really is a very simple thing…
Thank you for reading!
If you are interested in Ylva Hansdotter’s incredibly interesting research and work, check out her non-profit XR Impact.
If you live in Sweden and want to understand elderly people and their struggle with loneliness, I can warmly recommend volunteering for Äldrekontakt.
Photo: Aaron Greenwood – unsplash.com