Could 'Body-Swapping' Be A Real Solution For Racism? Scientists Are Optimistic

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There's a long history of research showing that increasing one's empathy towards people of different races can reduce help racism. Being unable to empathize with another person — literally, being incapable of sharing or understanding their feelings — is a pretty classic neurological hallmark of bias, and the idea of improving the empathy of white communities was discussed a lot with reference to Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and the I Can't Breathe movement of 2014. Horrifingly, an Italian study in 2014 actually showed that white people can assume a person feels less pain if they're black or poor — which is obviously a serious obstacle to improving equality. But how can you raise your empathy levels for other people, short of walking a mile in their shoes? Well, now you can do just that — by body-swapping with a person of a different race.

Let me explain.

When it comes to race, the brain is actually fairly simple: it responds to what it sees in the mirror. A study in 2010 found that brains reacted differently when seeing a member of one's own race than it did to seeing other races: not necessarily negatively, just differently. Unsurprisingly, this spiked when the person taking the test had already tested highly for implicit or subtle racism, which you can pinpoint by showing people a list of adjectives just after a face of a certain race flashes on a screen. If the person identifies the negative adjectives faster when they see a black face, and the positive adjectives faster when they see a white one, congratulations, they're racist. Hurrah.

However, two scientists, professors Manos Tsakiris and Mel Slater, have been using that subtle racism test to see if they can boost empathy for other races — by body-swapping. In what you could call the Freaky Friday principle, they devised a computer system where their test subjects (all white, adult Caucasians) were transformed onscreen into black adults. The body-swapping was meant to be utterly convincing, completely mapping onto the subjects' own faces and movements using motion tracking. When a Q-tip or hand was grazed across the face on the picture, the subjects reported that they felt it across their own face.

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This is fairly new technology, but it's not a new idea: getting humans to believe that they're actually experiencing "feeling" in an inanimate or separate object is an old psychological trick. Amputees are very familiar with the illusion, but a classic test is the Rubber Hand Illusion, which Tsakiris cited as an inspiration for their research. A realistic rubber hand is placed in full view, while your corresponding real hand is hidden, and both are stroked or touched in an identical manner. Nearly everybody reports that they believe the "feeling" of touch is coming from the rubber hand (and promptly freaks out).

Could there be such a thing as virtual-reality rehab for racists? Compulsory time imagining yourself as a person of color before you can become a cop or public servant? Could a politician caught saying racist things say he was going to body-swap therapy to be "cured"?

Tsakiris and Slater extended the illusion to full bodies, and to racial prejudice: their subjects reported "feeling" like the person of the other race was them, and feeling the sensations they felt. Both before and afterwards, Tsakiris and Slater gave their participants the subtle-racism test. And afterwards, after literally feeling like they were in a black person's skin, people scored far lower.

"By changing how people represent themselves internally, we probably allowed them to experience others as being more similar to them," Tsakiris wrote in an article that was shared on science blog I F*cking Love Science. "This in turn resulted in a reduction in their negative implicit biases. In other words, the integration of different sensory signals can allow the brain to update its model of the body and cause people to change their attitudes about others."

It's pretty exciting stuff, and goes to the heart of the neurological roots of racism — but can it be used more widely? Could there be such a thing as virtual-reality rehab for racists? Compulsory time imagining yourself as a person of color before you can become a cop or public servant? Could a politician caught saying racist things say he was going to body-swap therapy to be "cured"?

Before we go crazy, remember that the study only targets implicit biases — not outright, raging bile. It might be a little more difficult to foster empathy if you put a Ku Klux Klan member in front of a green screen. But empathy-building is one of the major ideas behind visibility campaigns, which demand more representation for everybody — women, people of color, people with disabilities — in popular culture, starring in stories that others relate to. Tsakiris and Slater's experiment fits into a spectrum of fights for increased empathy rather than representing a catch-all solution. (Though I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the image of Donald Sterling hooked up to a compulsory body-swap machine.)

Image: Getty & Giphy.