The Cultivate Empathy with Me Installation is a series of sensory enhanced VR first person glimpses into the lives of others, particularly the most maligned or marginalized, in their very human moments. It is meant to fire up mirror neurons and widen out one’s scope of empathy to include more of our human family.
Five, fifteen-foot-high opaque glass panels line up in the center of the space. The Viewers enter on opposite sides. They are lined up five in a row, each with tablet kiosks, a VR headset, and a scent generator. They face each other but do not see the other through the opaque wall. The fifteen-foot portraits of the VR subjects in close-up B & W photographs are meant to inspire awe and reverence for that human being. It is meant to inspire a sense of honor for them as part of our human family.
The tablet at the kiosk is like a docent that offers instructions and guidance like - “Put on headset and return when done.” When the VR ends and the viewers remove the headset, they see for the first time that the black wall in front of them has become a black and white photographic portrait of the subject in the VR, projected on the glass panel. Through the glass and image, the viewers can now make each other out in a sudden intimacy.
The Viewer is not only brought into the lives of others in their virtual reality experience, they are prompted to examine that experience. The moment they look inward to identify how they feel is the most vulnerable and exposed part of the installation for the Viewer which prompts them to find comfort and get their bearings in the other viewer and in shared experience.
The Viewers become agents of change that go forth to seed empathy in their families and communities.
When you recognize yourself as human in another that's the brain’s mirror neuron system at work.
When mirror neurons are fired up, humanity can't help but recognize itself.
Providence gifted me a Neurodivergent brain, leaving me forever misunderstood and sidelined in a world of Neurotypical dominance. It is a great vantage from which to watch everyone. I’ve seen the struggle with faulty social coding, diminished direct contact, abandon to attention economy enslavement. We are all now hyperconnected but no longer touching and drift ever further apart.
Empathy and love are how we find our way back home to each other. We start by recognizing shared experience and remembering ourselves as part of our human family.
Fascination with space and time gripped me at a young age. I collected View masters, stereographic cards, slides, and vintage viewers. I was naturally drawn to virtual reality and understood how it could bring people together.
More than ever, it is critical to begin moving toward each other to counter the wereld (Age of Man) that is pulling us apart. Virtual reality will help with that.
Quale is a philosophical term for individual subjective experience of the world, either direct or witnessed.
Qualia are collected Quale that frame one’s narrative about oneself and the world via a continuous and constant external referencing of others and the environment. Think of it as the brain’s Quale echolocation.
Qualia informs who we believe ourselves to be in a binary and dualistic perception of everything; this or that, me or you, good or bad, right or wrong. It’s the function of the typical brain’s mirror-neuron system. Navigating the physical environment, empathy, discerning intent, all a function of the mirror-neuron system. Mirror neurons require that we connect with our full capacity which includes touch.
Without direct interaction for the human brain and as a species, so goes direct felt experience and the connection it provides. Perceptually, cognitively, everything relies on interaction within our species.
What we are seeing now, this massive deficit of empathy, is how vulnerable our species is in a mobile based attention economy.
This continuous self-referencing system is a species imperative. Functioning as a species in direct contact with one another is in our hardwired makeup, it’s how we are designed. As a species, we cannot survive in isolated units.
Because of this, direct contact and human touch is a survival imperative. Touch is so critical to a human being that the frontal lobe is impacted without it (our emotional expression, problem solving abilities, memory, judgement, and sexual behaviors) and life expectancy are diminished.
A digitally transformed world separated us from how we cultivate empathy - direct contact and touch. Empathy is learned by interacting. Without touch, an epidemic of skin hunger may well be our undoing.
The Connective Tissue
Our species is held together by empathy. Without empathy, we drift from each other, which we cannot survive.
After twenty years in mediation, facilitation, coaching, and training conflict resolution, years working with traditional plant medicine particularly Ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle with an Ayahuascero, fifteen years in Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana training, thirteen years facilitating nonviolent communication workshops three days every month in the prison, I can attest that empathy can be cultivated. Cultivating empathy is how we find our way home to love and each other.
Michelle Espinosa is a Los Angeles native whose distinctive writing and filmmaking voice she attributes to her American west and Mexican heritage along with a love of Jorge Luis Borges fictions. As a Directing Fellow of The American Film Institute, she was the Mary Pickford and Remy Martin Foundations Grants recipient. She was also interviewed in American Film magazine and by the New York Times who described her award winning short film, Pinfeathers, as having a “Salammbô-like decadence ...”
Pinfeathers is the recipient of the Silver Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival.
She was featured in American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award broadcast on CBS. The American Film Institute Conservatory Director described Michelle as a " ... gifted, original talent and ... true story teller."
Her first film, Silence, was showcased several times by The Director's Guild of America Theater in Los Angeles and presented by L.A. Film Forum. She is the writer of When Rent is Due, a play (which premiered at New City Theater in Seattle). She authored All The Leaving, a novel which has been translated into Spanish and published in Mexico.
Ms. Espinosa spent three days a month in prisons for fifteen years facilitating Alternatives to Violence Project for inmates. AVP is a process by which inmates and community members learn communication, coping skills, and deeper self-awareness as alternatives to violence.
While a practicing mediator and facilitator with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office for twenty years, Michelle was invited to coach students at U.C.L.A. Law School and peer-to-peer mediators in L.A. middle schools.
Michelle's ambition remains, and has always been, to see dispute resolution a mandated part of childhood education..
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