You’ve probably heard about virtual reality, but have you ever experienced it? Often it seems like the technology, an industry, that never happened. Apparently a few brave scholars have been conducting experiments on its effects (aside from nausea), including one study of light-skinned participants who put themselves in a dark-skinned virtual body and then came out on the other side with less implicit racial bias. Pretty fascinating what simply changing your body (virtually speaking) can do for your head. The latest twist on virtual shape-shifting comes to us from a study conducted at University College London. There, researchers showed how compassion can be taught using avatars, such that naturally self-critical people may reduce the amount of judgment they inflict on themselves while also boosting their levels of self-acceptance.

'Embodiment' Shapes Your First Person Narrative

The body is a powerful experience. Consider for a moment how you feel and think when you are healthy compared to when you are sick. Think, too, about how your experience of the world might change if you were someone considerably more handsome than yourself, much taller or a lot thinner, a different gender or race. You’ve already been younger than you are now: Did that embodiment inspire different experiences than those of today?

For the current study, researchers from UCL, University of Barcelona, and University of Derby enlisted the help of 43 healthy, if self-critical women volunteers. Before beginning the experiment, the researchers surveyed and tested the women for mood and personality traits. Then, they designed life-size virtual bodies, or avators, in order to give each woman a first person perspective on a virtual room where a virtual child sat crying and upset. Next, the research team encouraged the volunteers to express compassion towards the child.

As the women spoke through their avatars, the virtual child appeared to listen and respond positively to the compassion.

After a few minutes, the researchers transferred the consciousness of nearly half (22) the volunteers into the body of the virtual child. Then, they replayed the experience from this point of view. In essence, the self-critical women experienced receiving compassion from themselves. Meanwhile, the remaining participants simply observed their virtual adult body express compassion to the virtual child from a third person perspective. This video, courtesy of YouTube and Aitor Rovira, a research associate at UCL, illustrates the complete experiment.

Why Is This Important?

Once again, the researchers tested the women on mood and personality, and here they discovered the very real power of a first person, self-to-self experience. The women who experienced their own compassion felt safe and content, while also showing an increase in self-compassion and a lower level of self-criticism. By contrast, those who experienced their compassion skills from the outside only reported reduced self-criticism… and that was it.

Because excessive self-criticism plays a role in many mental health problems, including depression, the researchers will explore whether this may be used as a low-cost treatment for people in their own homes. They also plan to test how a similar immersive video experience affects men. Soon enough, those hoping to heal may simply put on the googles in the privacy of their own homes... instead of wearing out the cushions on a therapist’s couch.

Source: Slater M, Falconer C, Brewin C, Rovira A. Virtual Reality Helps People Comfort Themselves. PLOS ONE. 2014.