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Virtual Reality Boosts Students’ Empathy for Nature

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In some cases, VR offers students an on-ramp to real-world experiences in nature. (Oonal/Getty Images)

Your arms morph into flippers. Your back grows round and hardens. You swim through thick ocean waters, dodging fishing gear and ships that can maim along the way. You are a loggerhead sea turtle—or at least that is what your brain perceives when you wear a virtual reality headset and enter Project SHELL (Simulating Living Habitat Experiences of Living Loggerheads), a research project of the University of Oregon and the University of Florida.

But your experience does not end when the headset comes off. From a sensory perspective, the dangers you faced while embodying a turtle threatened you . As a result, you increased your empathy for loggerheads, your understanding of environmental threats and your motivation to protect the species and its habitat, according to a study published in Scientific Reports .

“Plenty of people are moved to tears after experiencing a [VR] boat strike or having to abandon their clutch of eggs,” Daniel Pimentel, one of the study’s co-authors, said in an email sent from a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean. He explained that it is easier for humans to empathize with a single victim […]

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