Illustrations by Gareth Damian Martin
It seemed like magic. By hacking together a pair of VR headsets, a group of artists and DIY neuroscientists discovered that they could create empathy between two strangers. Men could empathize with women. The old could understand the young. White people could hold up their hands and see black skin. Not only was VR slick, shiny new technology, but it had a wonderful potential for helping people learn compassion. VR was hailed as a savior, and the praise was piled on.
BeAnotherLab, who conducted the empathy experiments, came away with a darker opinion: it would be just as easy for VR to inflict pain on someone. “VR has the potential to induce severe pain or suffering, whether physically or mentally, if it is applied with a tortuous intentionality,” the team wrote over email. They went on to say that “most certainly, the military will shortly be experimenting with VR as a form of torture if they have not already begun.”
The grim warning is an unexpected thing to hear from a lab whose sole purpose is using VR with compassionate intent. However, it seems that there are some serious misgivings about VR’s status as a holistically benevolent concept. It could be the case that Silicon Valley has inadvertently engineered the ideal device for psychological torture.
That’s not to suggest that the technology lacks a soft side. There is ample evidence of VR’s positive effects on the mind. VR simulation can be more effective than morphine at reducing sensitivity to chronic pain. It has been shown to normalize the flight or fight area in the brains of soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder. It seems to be able to promote empathy when the intentions are right. But if we are willing to grant that VR does all this amazing and beneficial stuff, shouldn’t we also entertain the counter possibility that it can do damage to our mental states far beyond making us barf?
“advanced interrogation techniques”
The reason science believes that VR has such a powerful impact on the mind is because of its sensorimotor capabilities. Unlike watching TV or reading a graphic novel, when you turn your head while viewing an application inside VR goggles, the image you see moves in correspondence to that. To put it simply, this confuses the signals inside your head. “One of the most intriguing things about removing the [television] frame is that on a subliminal level there is a deep part of your brain that says ‘I’m here,’” said the computer graphics pioneer Ken Perlin. The result is a strong sense of spatial presence which is great for playing an immersive game, but in the wrong hands could be manipulated to do harm.
It stands to reason that some groups or rogue individuals would very much want to do harm. Military organizations, for instance, would be interested in how the sensory aspects of VR could be abused to screw around with interrogation subjects’ heads. Though the United Nations has prohibited any form of torture that causes severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, since 1987, the mental proviso is often ignored. There are often loopholes, and torture has become oriented around techniques that leave little physical evidence like scars.
As the public gleaned from 2014’s CIA torture report, the modern state of torture is horrifically psychological. The heavily redacted, 525-page document bore witness to the often brutal mental tactics that were used to coerce confessions and critical intel from War on Terror detainees. White noise, pitch darkness, and threats of familial rape were common. One detainee was shut inside a box the size of a coffin. (There’s an app for that.) Another was threatened with a power drill. A group of men were forced to stay awake for a week and suffered “disturbing” hallucinations. These “advanced interrogation techniques,” as the American government euphemized them, have since been curtailed by way of executive order from President Obama, but the permissibility of a virtual torture has yet to be discussed, or even fully comprehended.
The scary thing about VR as a torture device is its versatility. “It’s difficult to conceive of the upper limits of distress. The human mind’s capacity for suffering is tremendously vast,” the people at BeAnotherLab told me, “as is human ingenuity to cause suffering in novel ways.” Within the confines of simulation, there are certainly many circles of mental hell that a head-mounted display can navigate: disorientation and physical sickness, the incitation of panic and fear, religious or moral defamation, sensory overload, sensory deprivation, a feeling of disembodiment, and dependence on a machine that could flash whatever horrible imagery its operator chose before the eyes.
VR simulation could recreate the illusion of pain
It may seem that VR prisoners would simply be trained to tune out the images being blasted into their eyeholes, knowing full-well that the worst harm that could come from an optical illusion is eyestrain. However, consider the hypothetical plight of a captured soldier who is kept alone in VR for an exceedingly long period of time. Gradually, their brain would begin to carve out new connections as it adjusted to living inside a virtual environment. If the simulation was stressful, fear conditioning would climb. Prolonged VR immersion would potentially alter how a person responds to visual stimuli. It would also affect the prisoner’s sense of self, place, and time. Coupled with what is already known about solitary confinement—that it causes visual and auditory hallucinations, that it hinders people’s ability to recognize an object as the same object when viewed from different angles, that it drives inmates to self-harm and suicide—VR confinement could leave detainees on the verge of a complete breakdown.
It might even be possible that VR is capable of manipulating the senses to the point of creating a mental sensation of pain. “It’s actually really easy to create a phantom sensation,” BeAnotherLab told me, referring to the strange phenomena called the body transfer illusion. Under the right set of conditions, the mind can be tricked into believing that it is feeling the sensations that an external body feels. The lab tells me that since they have begun working with VR they have become more receptive to this kind of illusion. In fact, they are currently launching a study into whether or not VR increases people’s vicarious pain sensitivity—a mysterious condition, common among amputees with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, where the nervous system misfires and triggers pain at the sight of someone else’s suffering. How dystopian would a future be where someone discovered that a VR simulation could recreate the illusion of pain on a loop without the body’s hormonal release of endorphins or the catharsis of dying?
In the decade or two since VR’s unimpressive commercial debut in 1990s, the technology has been incubating in the arms of universities, healthcare facilities, and more recently, do-gooder journalists. In other words, these are people who give a damn, who have used VR for good, to build “empathy machines.” But if we truly give a damn, maybe it’s time to ask what VR becomes in the grips of the less scrupulous. The VR we know is fun and benevolent and leaves our jaws gaping, but it also presents a double. This VR scrambles minds. It brings about a diaspora from the self. It can cause misery and potentially agony. It’s time to talk about that VR.