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Virtual Reality Used To Tests Human Emotions

August 20, 2010

Virtual reality is giving scientists the ability to ask tough questions about human behaviors that were previously thought not possible or unethical.

Scientists in Spain designed a trial that allows men to step inside the body of a woman subjected to violence.

Male volunteers at Barcelona University experienced life as a virtual young girl and then separately witnessed violence towards her.

The men later empathized with her more than usual, feeling scared and insecure themselves.

“I want to know whether you can use virtual reality, not just to transform the place you are in, but also to transform your very self,” Mel Slater, lead researcher at the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies, told BBC News.

“If you see yourself in a virtual body, which moves as you do, how will this affect your behavior?”

Male volunteers see a virtual room with a woman in front of them caressing their arm.  Someone actually running their fingers down their arm in real life reinforces this illusion.

While looking in the mirror, the person looking back is a young girl wearing a skirt.

After this, the volunteer is shown a view hovering above the scene instead of acting as the girl, with the affectionate woman slapping the girl twice on the face.

The idea behind the experiment is for the volunteer to feel the shock of what has happened more personally.

Slater told BBC that the technique could be used to fight racism and abuse.

“In a kind of empathic way, we can learn what it is like to be the victim of racism.”

“Or understand what it is like to experience abuse in different ways. And therefore especially for the abusers, they may learn what sort of damage they are inflicting on others from a psychological point of view.”

Bernard Spanlang, researcher in virtual reality at the University of Barcelona, told BBC that this works even if the quality of virtual reality is pretty rudimentary.

“The visual quality is actually not very important. What is more important is that the virtual reality reacts in a way that you would expect it to.”

“So even if you render the scene in wire-frame, based on triangles without any shading, in experiments people react as if they were in that place.”

The technology is being used to replicate a psychological experiment into the darker parts of the human character, where real experiments would be too traumatic for those to take part.

Stanley Milgram of Yale University performed an experiment in the 1960s that was considered unethical by testing to see how people responded to an authority figure.  He found that most people if pressed were prepared to repeatedly give an electric shock to another person.

During Milgram’s experiment, he used actors to pretend to be in pain, but the people giving out the electric shock thought it was real.

Slater replicated these experiments using virtual reality at University College London.

The person who received the shocks was virtual, but the volunteer is still put in a moral quandary and their emotional reaction is real.

Slater told BBC:  “What we are interested in is, even knowing that you were only giving electric shocks to a virtual character, would you still respond with stress and anxiety and the kind of symptoms that were shown by Milgram’s original subjects?”

“The answer was yes. Obviously to a lower level, but people still experienced anxiety that you could measure with physiological measuring devices.”

“This virtual reality technology opens up the door for studying – in an ethically fine way – these kinds of issues.”

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