Empathy: How Your Brain Reacts To VR

Empathy: How Your Brain Reacts To VR
January 6, 2017

A new case study on how VR affects the brain suggests immersive story can be an effective tool to shift individuals into pro-social emotional states. Many of these stories to be released soon on our app are categorized by brain wave patterns. Our content is intended to be a first step toward compounding media experiences much like you would compound drugs to trigger different outcomes. While none of our stories pretend to mimic the effects of psychotropic mediations, it makes you wonder whether in the future a “story pharmacy” could exist to treat baseline symptoms of depression or anxiety. With the help of the MO Innovation Center, StoryUP teamed up with practitioners like Dr. Jeff Tarrant, creatives and journalists to determine which kinds of immersive story quiet the brain, motive us, influence mindfulness and foster empathy.

Previous studies by Dr. Tarrant indicated VR storytelling can influence mindfulness and even quiet the brain with different kinds of storytelling or storytelling inputs. Keep reading for a look at his latest study.

It’s kind of like tuning a piano. The storyteller presses a key and the psychologist studies whether the immersive storytelling input needs to be louder, brighter or a different character altogether.

Image 1: EEG measurement during a VR Story

Image 2: EEG capturing brain wave activity


Previous research has shown VR can be just as effective as a dose of hydromorphone. StoryUP’s platform seeks to fine tune that ‘dosage’ into outcome based stories you can feel.


If VR is going to be used in therapy, then storytellers need to understand how each input, character, movement, gesture, pacing, plot and camera angle affect the brain. Practitioners need to know the specific brain regions these experiences could impact.


Dr. Tarrant looked at empathy centers of the brain to see if VR could develop empathy and compassion. The findings, which you can read below, are the backbone of a new platform StoryUP VR will launch this month which is at the intersection of immersive journalism and neuroscience. All of the stories on the IOS, Android, Daydream, Playstation and Oculus app are real…real people triumphing over real challenges. The hope is one day more people can use these platforms to StoryUP. Some of our stories are already used with aging Veterans as part of our Honor Everywhere program.

Dr. Jeff Tarrant uses Medication Free Therapies for his Patients


Case Study #3

Can Virtual Reality be used to develop empathy and compassion?

-Dr. Jeff Tarrant

Neurofeedback Specialist


The subject was a 68 year old female. EEG data was recorded in 19 channels before and after the subject watched a 5 minute storyabout a group of individuals in Zambia that did not have the use of their legs. In the story, these individuals are presented with hand crank PET (Personal Energy Transportation) carts, allowing them mobility they have not experienced in many years. The story was created by StoryUP VR and is designed to increase empathy and compassion in the viewer.


After completing the EEG recordings, the subject was asked to write a few statements about what she was feeling or thinking after the experience. The subject wrote the following list:


  • -sadness
  • -hope
  • -despair
  • -gratitude
  • -sympathy
  • -wanting to help
  • -sense of community


When comparing the EEG data after the experience to the baseline data, the largest changes were observed in gamma brainwaves (35–45hz). Gamma represents the fastest brainwaves and is associated with increased cognitive processing as well as a synthesizing of information.


The images below show the changes that occurred after the VR story. Bright colors (yellow, orange, red) indicate a significant increase of gamma activity after the VR experience. This first two images show that the increased gamma activity occurred almost exclusively in the left hemisphere.

Left and Right Hemispheres


These increases were seen predominately in the parieto-occipital area toward the back of the head and also along the sensory motor strip. It is possible that this reflects a combination of visual and body oriented processing. Because it is on the left hemisphere, this subject was likely engaging in some kind of language oriented processing, perhaps attempting to integrate and make sense out of what was just experienced.


In an attempt to understand these findings in more detail, the analysis was extended using sLORETA analyses to examine changes in deeper structures of the brain.


The image below shows changes in the Lingual Gyrus and supports the notion that there was some level of language processing involved. It is likely that the subject was engaged in some level of internal “talk,” while processing the story.

Posterior of Left Insula


The next image shows increased activation in the posterior portion of the left Insula. The Insula is important in emotional processing, empathy and the experience of internal bodily states (e.g., heart beat). This activation is consistent with the subject reporting the experience of a number of emotional states including empathy, sadness and hope.

Activation of the left Parahippocampal Gyrus


The final image shows activation of the left Parahippocampal Gyrus. This region of the brain is generally associated with memory encoding or retrieval. This activation is likely to be the result of the subject attempting to integrate her experience with what she knows and understands from previous experiences and knowledge.


The results of this case study show that a brief VR experience can induce both subjective feelings of empathy and compassion, but also activate regions of the brain important in the processing of these complex emotional states. These preliminary results provide additional evidence that VR can be used to assist in the development of prosocial emotional states.

— Dr. Jeff Tarrant


StoryUP VR is an immersive media startup located in Columbia, MO, the heart of the Silicon Prairie.

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