My friends and I sometimes play a game called Confessions. After we’ve taken the time and care to create a metaphorical container of safety and comfort, we take turns confessing all the things we wouldn’t typically share with the world…or even with ourselves. I often start out fairly light, with things I’m aware of but not proud of, eg. I told a bit of a micro-lie the other day to manipulate the situation.
Ultimately, however, I notice that as the game progresses, my confessions not only deepen, but they become confessions even to myself. I begin to hear myself say things I didn’t realize I thought or felt, eg. He’s white, how has he ever had to struggle? These are the types of thoughts we all have, whether we consciously believe them or not. I would never consciously think something like that, but biases are unconscious and don’t always reflect what we think we consciously think.
I know what you’re thinking, WTH kind of a game is that?
Hearing these things might sound pretty terrifying, especially when you’re the one saying them. And it can be; but, growth is not without growing pains. Being in a room with friends who are dedicated to compassion – for self as well as for others – allows this game to be a safe space where we can notice the difficult things about ourselves, approach them with empathy, and then take the steps to grow out of them.
Compassion comes from the Latin for ‘to suffer with.’ In this age of technology, we are more connected than ever before. But, has that made us more compassionate?
We’re dying to be noticed. We’re dying because we’re not noticed.
Social media now make it easier than ever to broadcast our personal stories to the world. Privacy is turned on its head in a world where we now complain if people don’t read our most personal diary entries. We share in an effort to feel closer to people, and in more extreme cases, when we want people to suffer with us, to be compassionate. But are the messages getting across?
Social media risk conflating crying and crying wolf.
With the ease of gaining an audience by clicking a friend request, and a platform that’s accessible 24/7, have cries for help become so ubiquitous that we don’t even hear them? Are they drowned out by the vitriolic ‘trolling’ that appears to be the ultimate fate of any online forum?
What kind of a reception can exist when a post about someone lamenting a friend’s untimely death is followed by someone else raving about a $6 cheeseburger? Without a metaphorical container of safety and comfort, confessions of vulnerability can leave us feeling even more isolated.
From smoke signals to snail mail to electronic messaging in all its various short-forms, communication has evolved to be lightning fast and as easy as opening the mouth and pressing a button. But what happens when words get sent as quickly as neurons fire? It once took months, miles, and great hardship for communication to be transmitted. How pensively one must have thought about a message before letting it loose into the world. Nowadays, the president of the free world spouts off tweets as fast as his impulsive, little fingers can type. Those unconscious (or conscious) biases are no longer being consciously weeded out. With the amount of time spent on social media, we’re bombarded with bias like never before. It’s no wonder these biases sometimes creep in, no matter how consciously you shirk them.
What if there was a way — beyond a 140-character tweet or an emoji-encoded facebook post — to help someone understand you? To give someone the experience of being you? To walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?
What could be more elucidating than literally putting on someone else’s perspective?
You’ve probably seen virtual reality (VR) games that allow you to ride roller coasters or walk with dinosaurs; but, imagine an immersive, 3D environment of a Syrian refugee camp, with people all around you, struggling through a life you probably could not imagine without seeing it firsthand. With Chris Milk’s Clouds Over Sidra, now you can.
Studies have shown that participants using VR demonstrate more empathy after an immersive experience.
Developing this technology, however, is just the first step. Opening our eyes and hearts to the daily struggles of people unlike ourselves is powerful; but, we need to be able to integrate these momentary experiences of empathy into social change.
Storyteller and writer, Sisonke Msimang, gave a compelling TED talk about how stories are the antidote to bias. However, Msimang cautions, “listening is an important but insufficient step towards social action.” Stories become dangerous when a listener, filled with the warm dopamine surge of empathy, and so deeply connected with the protagonist that they feel they themselves fought the battle and therefore, no more is needed to be done.
Just as easily, Sam Gregory, a Harvard University adjunct lecturer on human rights, warns against the potential for virtual reality to become “just another form of poverty tourism”. With VR experiences like Philippe Bertrand’s The Machine to be Another, participants can ‘swap bodies’ with another participant or, for instance, with someone who’s 95 years old, differently-abled, or a different gender or ethnicity. With the immersive experience of a reality very different (and oftentimes more difficult) than ours, rather than empathy for others, there might just be more gratitude for the return to one’s regular life. In that case, how does that serve anyone except the VR user?
The same way someone might feel like an expert after watching an 18-min TED talk without doing the research himself, experiencing another’s plight only to remove the $600 Oculus Rift after the 10-min show might leave someone with a false sense of accomplishment.
Furthermore, experiencing someone else’s perspective is a shock to the system for which we are not yet equipped. We need to be better able to integrate these experiences so that we not only feel empathy for the person of color, for instance, in whose shoes we momentarily walked, but so that we are able to shift from empathy for others to noticing bias in ourselves.
In her TED talk on overcoming biases, Verna Myers, implores us to have the uncomfortable talks, especially with ourselves: to acknowledge the biases deeply ingrained in us as a result of living in modern-day society. Like my game of Confessions reveals, Myers gave an example of how, despite being an activist and diversity advocate, bias creeps into her life. Myers admits that while on a plane, she was at first overjoyed to hear the voice of a female pilot. Once there was turbulence, however, the thought ran through her mind, I hope she can drive. Myers says she, clearly a woman herself, didn’t even know that particular bias existed in her until the thought ran through her mind.
As Myers asserts, we overcome our biases by walking boldly toward them.
Before we can walk boldly toward them, however, we must first acknowledge them. VR has been shown to be an engine of empathy; and now, it is time to move into the business of eradicating bias.
About the Author
Valerie Beltran is a psychotherapist and consciousness hacker who believes that technology can help humanity evolve by increasing self-awareness, promoting empathy, and transforming perspectives. Valerie is dedicated to creating and teaching techniques and technologies (not limited to electronic technologies, Valerie uses a definition of technology that includes ideas or practices such as meditation) that organically usher people into evolution. Valerie is also the COO of Consciousness Hacking, an organization helping to create a bridge between technology and spirituality, and enabling access to tools for transformation.