Then there is duration. It’s not hard to try out certain short-term experiences, such as dealing with a crying baby for a few minutes, sitting alone in a closet, or having strangers gawk at you on the street. But you can’t extrapolate from these to learn what it’s like to be a single parent, a prisoner in solitary confinement, or a famous movie star. You can’t take an event of minutes and hours and generalize to months and years.
Why not? One consideration is that some experiences are fine in the short-term, but wear you down over time. Solitary confinement is an obvious example here. Or consider subtle forms of sexual and racial discrimination—certain seemingly minor attacks on one’s dignity are easy to shrug off in any single instance, but if they are repeated and relentless, they can lead to anxiety and depression.
On the flip side, some experiences that are awful in the short term aren’t so bad in the long run; we habituate and adapt. This is why disability simulations do so poorly. In a scathing review of the experimental literature, Arielle Michal Silverman points out that these simulations “give the mistaken impression that the entirety of being disabled is marked by loss, frustration, and incompetence.” One study, for instance, asked subjects to wear blindfolds for a short period. When the blindfolds were removed, the subjects “… described their experience as being very difficult, frustrating, confusing, and frightening. In fact, a few students spontaneously uttered remarks such as “thank God I’m not blind” upon removing the blindfold. The students also projected their negative experience onto blind people. Compared with control students, blindfolded students estimated that blind people experience more fear, anger, confusion, and distress on a daily basis.”
And they were wrong. Blind people are actually pretty much as happy as sighted people. This is because they adapt to their blindness and because there’s more to their lives than their disability. Silverman points out that, at best, disability simulations offer the experience of becoming blind, becoming paralyzed, and so on.
Fortunately, there is a better version of VR that avoids some of these problems. Affordable, durable, and small enough to hold in one hand, these devices allow you to simulate not only the physical environment of individuals, but also their psychological experiences, and can do this for multiple people, moving forward and backward in time. They enable you to experience the most private experiences of others, both by triggering your own memories and by extending your imagination in radical ways.
These “empathy machines” are books, of course—as in novels and journalism and autobiography. When it comes to simulating physical experiences, they are not as powerful as certain alternatives. (If you want to know what it feels like to fall into a freezing lake, don’t open up a book; put a bag of ice into your bathtub and hop in.) And it might well be that language offers us a pale imitation of what another consciousness is like, especially when it comes to people whose experiences and beliefs are radically different from our own.
But when it comes to understanding the lives of others, nothing else comes close.