Avatars and the Mirrorbox: Can Humans Hack Empathy?

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Faces from Megan Daalder's Mirrorbox project

Mirrorbox faces
Faces from Megan Daalder's Mirrorbox project

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Human solider Jake Sully jacks his mind into an alien body in order to spy on the real aliens, but ends up developing so much sympathy for them that he defects. The fact that his Na'vi body is physical and not virtual is an invention of moviemaker James Cameron for the sci-fi film Avatar--but everything else about Jake's experience lines right up with modern psychology.

Researchers at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab have found it's very easy for people to inhabit virtual bodies, even if those bodies bear little resemblance to their own. They readily cue their behavior off the appearance of their avatars; for example, those inhabiting taller avatars negotiate more aggressively. Nick Yee, now a researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center, calls this influence "The Proteus Effect." Most striking, these behaviors bleed over into ordinary life. Even short people who inhabited a tall avatar will be more aggressive in face-to-face interactions.

Virtual avatars are one thing. But what about real bodies? Would identifying with another person's body make you behave more like that person? If the body belongs to a different gender, age, or ethnicity than yours, would you become more empathic to others in that group?

World of Warcraft Cover Art
World of Warcraft is an avatar-based online community that has been used for research into the Proteus Effect.

This idea may seem confined to realm of science fiction, but artist Megan Daalder has found a way to try it out in the real world. Her Mirrorbox, a helmet-like contraption worn by two people as they stand facing each other, uses lights and mirrors to superimpose the images of their two faces as they smile, nod, and talk together.


It may sound creepy, but most participants report loving the experience. Some even use words like "euphoria" and "bliss" in post-Mirrorbox surveys. The feeling of sharing a face with another human is apparently right up humanity's alley.

These reports have gotten scientists interested in using the Mirrorbox as a tool to study and perhaps enhance empathy. Humans, after all, are prone to exclusion: Me, not you. Our group, not those others.

But humans also have a powerful capacity for empathy. Great men and women throughout the ages and around the world have been able to identify with the suffering of others and work tirelessly to alleviate it.

However, those of us who aspire to such greatness often struggle to empathize even with that rush-hour commuter who totally just cut us off. Could regular practice with a tool like the Mirrorbox train us to be more forgiving? More accepting?

Daalder, who is also an instructor at UCLA's Sci|Art NanoLab, made a fascinating video about the Mirrorbox's transition between the realms of art and science. It closes with these tantalizing words from Sook-Lei Liew, a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Southern California: "We can't say that much yet, but the results are very promising."

h/t to Scientific American's video of the week

Mirrorbox: The Story of How Art Became Science from megamayd on Vimeo.