I am flying. No plane, no wings, just me soaring over rooftops with a mild flip in my belly as I dip closer to the grid of city streets. I lean to the right to curve past a skyscraper, then speed up and tilt left to skirt by a tree. There has been an earthquake and I am looking for a lost child who is diabetic and needs insulin.
This is not a dream. I am awake, wearing my normal clothes – no cape or leotard – standing squarely on both feet in a room of the virtual reality laboratory at Stanford University.
About 70 test subjects have done the same simulation, half of them flying in a virtual helicopter, the other half granted the virtual superpower of flight. Half from each group have a mission: find and save the lost child.
A fascinating and thorough piece on how gadgets are deeply modifying the way our brains work with empathy and human interaction by April Dembosky for the Financial Times.
This is what happens after the test:
After the simulation, head gear returned to a hook on the wall, a researcher reaches for her clipboard to ask a few questions. She accidentally knocks over a tin of pens. In sociology studies, this is a classic trick for measuring altruistic intent. The test subjects who flew Superman-style rushed to help clean up the spill. They responded four seconds faster and picked up two more pens on average than the helicopter passengers.
“If you are flying, you feel very powerful, so the sense of having power made people more generous, more altruistic,” says Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who helped design the study, accepted for publication in the e-journal Plos One. “It could also be that the desire to be helpful was directly related to conscious or unconscious associations to Superman,” she adds.
There is growing concern that our emotional and empathetic pathways are being eroded by all the screen time. We spend so much time on our computers and gadgets that we are starting to think like them. Brain circuits are being rewired to accommodate these tools of modern life. We process more bits and bytes of information, and we are quite fast at it. But there could be a trade-off – our motivations to act like Superman are diminishing.