Over the past week, I’ve found myself asking a challenging question.
Can any of us know what it’s really like to experience something that we’ve never really experienced ourselves?
I was always fascinated by those switcheroo Eighties film classics where uptight mums swapped bodies with their uppity teenage daughters, or little boys found themselves suddenly adult-sized, playing Chopsticks on a floor piano in a toy store. But nothing like this could ever happen in real life, could it?
Or could it?
Researchers at the University of Barcelona have now created a way of simulating the switcheroo experience – and they are hoping that (just like in the movies), it will unseat some deep-seated assumptions about what it’s like to be a different person, living a different life.
The researchers have just brought out an interactive virtual reality programme which allows white participants to experience themselves as dark-skinned avatars.
The experience has been described by commentators as an ‘immersive journey towards empathy and understanding’.
The research team recruited 60 ‘light-skinned’ participants who all took a test that revealed underlying – and unwitting – racial prejudices.
A few days later the subjects returned to the lab to put on a velcro-fitted suit with motion sensors, and an image-projecting helmet.
Using the virtual reality kit, they saw themselves in a mirror – but the ‘self’ they saw was actually black.
For six minutes they were left to interact with the environment in their new identity.
Afterwards, the prejudice test was repeated – and those who had ‘seen’ themselves as black subverted their earlier subconscious prejudices.
Such unconscious biases are so deep-rooted and hard-wired we usually don’t acknowledge them even to ourselves. So this experiment is a fascinating attempt to circumvent the brain’s hard-wiring by transforming the ‘other’ into ‘the self’.
But how long does this effect really last?
Last week the Minister of State for Disabled People, Mike Penning, came up to Leeds as part of the International Day of Disabled People. As well as visiting charities such as WorkPlace Leeds – an employment support service which is part of Leeds Mind – the Minister attended a disability training event at Asda House.
As part of the event, Asda employees enhanced their awareness of disabilities by wearing eyewear to simulate the experience of a visual impairment, or gloves to mimic the pain and stiffness of arthritic hands. People commented on the difficulty they had paying for goods or choosing items on a shelf when they couldn’t see well or dig out coins from a purse.
The experience of frail elderly people has also been simulated at a national bank, using the Barclays Elderly Simulation Suit, or BESS. The suit hampers movement and vision, making walking, bending and writing difficult. More than 50 Barclays employees performed banking as usual wearing BESS, then reported back. As a result Barclays has now introduced easy-grip pens, high visibility cash cards and audio ATMs.
This experiment shows that the experience of turning ourselves into an ‘other’ can have a positive impact. If everyday business changes at a major bank as a result of people immersing themselves in the experience of ‘being’ old and frail, that can only be a good thing. But all of these experiments are temporary and aberrant. Rather than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, it’s more like trying on a pair of your mum’s stilettoes for a minute as a toddler before putting your comfy child-sized T-bars back on.
When someone is viewed as ‘other’ – because they are black, or a woman, or gay – or when they face lifelong institutional barriers that lead to poverty, isolation, and exclusion – as many disabled people do – there is no way to simulate the grinding, disillusioning exhaustion of inhabiting that experience on a daily basis. Perhaps the only way to truly understand it is to live it. And for those who live it to be listened to, and their experiences truly heard.