There has been a flood of VR experiences touting the effects of manufacturing empathy, most notably in experiences focusing on artistic expression and not-for-profit work. Many resources have already commented on the space, including thoughts by Wired as well as projects like Project Empathy.

According to Suzanne Keen in her article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy”,

Traditional media enforces empathy through Narrative Character Identification. In typical narrative function, a reader experiences a sense of identification with the character. Deep visual and auditory immersion and detail lead to a sense of belonging – this explains why VR connects with users so viscerally.

VR’s interactivity and immersiveness allow viewers to be an intimate witness to the subject experiencing an “event” without having to actually experience it first. This ability makes VR a wonderful “practice” platform for experiences that can be threatening.

We employed these empathetic qualities of VR to simulate an MRI scan for pediatric patients. While our MRI project wasn’t focused primarily on ’empathy’ (empathy by definition is the concept of sharing the emotions of another, i.e. “I feel what you feel” vs. the sympathy definition of “I understand your feelings”), it was created to instill a sense of trust to help the child work through their anxiety of what can be a terrifying experience.

We created a teddy bear named Sprinkles and asked the child to put Sprinkles through the MRI scanner first – developing power and control inside of an uncomfortable experience. The child places Sprinkles onto the MRI bed and pushes the button to start the machine. Elements that contribute to fear are not minimized – for example, the sound is loud and grating. As a disconnected third party – but with control and understanding – they can see and hear Sprinkles’ experience. Perhaps most importantly, they see Sprinkles exit the machine unscathed.

After it is complete, the child goes through an abbreviated version of the same experience, from their own perspective, lying back on the MRI machine. This first person experience, though they have still never seen an *actual* MRI, is now not completely new after watching Sprinkles. The process is the same, the sound is the same and it prepares them for the real machine.This mimics early learning provided by play – we learn by doing.

Through this experience, the child’s fears are reduced when they see Sprinkles go into the machine and emerge unharmed; that the loud and somewhat scary sounding machine wasn’t something that will actually hurt them.

There is a real need for MRI labs to be able to reduce anxiety in children. Not only are delays costly, but because almost half of all children are put under general anesthesia for the test. A MRI experience is not the only benefactor of VR and it’s empathetic qualities. The powerful and immersive quality of VR, in it’s ability to mimic situations and emotions, can dissuade our fears in the face of unknown experiences.