Updated: Aug 29, 2020
By Todd Maddox, PhD and Tim Fitzpatrick
We live in a world of incredible individual diversity. Whether the diversity is in gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental capabilities, we are all unique, and add value to the communities that we live in and society at large. Diversity in backgrounds, skills, attitudes, experiences, and the unique neurobiology that underlies this diversity brings fresh ideas, perspectives, and ways of expressing oneself that makes us stronger as a community.
Unfortunately, we all live in a personal bubble of sorts. It is natural to have a deeper understanding of, and connection to, those like us, and to be wary and possibly even intolerant of those who differ from us. Our beliefs are driven by our experiences, and individuals with common experiences are more like us and are perceived as better understood.
A major challenge in our communities is to develop a meaningful understanding of, and respect for, those different from us. The more empathy, compassion, and acceptance of others different from us, the stronger and more cohesive our communities.
One of the most common ways to learn about others is to read and study diversity. One can read about the ideas, perspectives and beliefs across the sexes, generations, or sexual orientations. One can study how physical and mental challenges, or atypical physical and mental capacities affect the day-to-day life of an individual. Although reading about and studying diversity is highly recommended, this is not the optimal method for instilling a deep understanding of others.
“Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.”
This insightful quote from Albert Einstein says it all and is at the core of why reading is suboptimal for developing a meaningful understanding of diversity. Text is information. Text is processed by the cognitive learning system in the brain. In the case of diversity, one must translate 2D static abstract text-based descriptions into 3D dynamic representations of other individuals; their backgrounds, skills, attitudes and experiences. Simply put, this is extremely challenging and not very effective.
What one really needs is to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and to experience and “feel” as they do. By walking a mile in another’s shoes, one can begin to understand what their life is like. The highs, the lows, how their background, skills and attitudes affect their behavior and how others behave toward them.
Enter the experience machine
With VR you can literally “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”! VR engages experiential and emotional learning centers in the brain that give you a feeling of presence, as if you are someone else. VR engages cognitive learning centers as you process the sights, sounds and experiences.
The feeling is visceral. With VR you can “experience” stereotypical gender treatment, ageism or homophobia first-hand. With VR you can see and feel the avoidance behaviors from others that those with a physical disability experience constantly, and you can experience this first-hand. You can experience first-hand the childlike treatment from others that so many seniors experience on a daily basis. You can experience first-hand the unique thought and behavioral processes of an individual with autism spectrum disorder and gain an understanding of the challenges associated with social interaction.
By learning through experience, you gain more than just information and abstract knowledge, you gain an emotional understanding and a “feel” for what it is like to be another. In addition, by learning through experience, you have a repertoire of another’s experiences to draw on as you resume your interactions in the community. In short, your understanding of another is broadly represented in your brain as emotions, experiences, and information.
This deep experiential understanding of diversity has a number of positive effects on the community. A “walk a mile in my shoes” understanding of others will reduce stigma and misunderstandings around gender, age, sexual orientation and physical and mental diversity. It will reduce the prevalence of inappropriate, but stereotypical behaviors such as avoiding contact with someone with a physical or mental challenge or treating seniors like children.
It will help employers see the value in diversity, such as some of the unique strengths of individuals on the autism spectrum. It will help the care force to better understand normal aging, cognitive, physical and emotional changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, or the unique challenges, but also gifts associated with autism. It will help us to more appropriately and naturally interact with those different from us, so as to bring out and appreciate the value that we all bring to our communities.
With VR we can achieve these aims and gain a deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for diversity – one experience at a time.