Monday, August 24, 2009

Anatomy of Empathy – Part 1 (or a Hopelessly Self-indulgent Musing)

By Kate
A little robot, Wall-E, spent hundreds of years in solitude processing garbage in the empty planet, until one day, when he meets EVA. She becomes his girl-friend and sole friend. When she turns inactive for a reason he doesn't understand, he takes care of her, dressing her up and bringing her to picnic.

Satine, a beautiful courtesan of Moulin Rouge who wants to be a real actress, is in love with a struggling writer. She is about to be raped by the duke who has been their sponsor. She announces that today is the day her life ends.

At the end of a picture-perfect love story in which a young couple overcome their obstacles, the young man watches the love of his life lie in a hospital bed dying of leukemia.
It might be too shameful for you to admit that you felt something in those moments. It is for me. But that does not change the fact that we felt for these characters. Empathy. Identification. These are the words often used to label what happened to us. They say we empathized with those characters. But what does that mean?

As it turns out, philosophers have spent much brain power to resolve the “paradox” of empathizing with fictional characters. Susan Feagin, for example, contends that “empathy” is feeling exactly what the other person feels and “for the right reasons.” According to Feagin, in empathizing with a real person, we have to believe that we adopted the beliefs and desires of the person in question. (Otherwise, it would be sympathy, not empathy.) In empathizing with a fictional character however, we can't hold such a belief. In fact, we don’t even believe that the person exists at all. So how is it possible that we empathize with a fictional character? Feagin’s solution to this paradox is to say that we imagine having the fictional character’s beliefs and desires, rather than believing that we do. This sounds like saying that the empathy we feel for a real person is categorically different from the empathy we feel for a fictional character. The former is based on the second order belief (the belief that we adopted the other person’s beliefs) and the latter based on imagination.

A more convoluted proposal comes from Gregory Currie, who says we don’t imagine believing the same thing as a non-existing person in empathizing with him, but we (lo and behold) “believe-I” and "desire-I" the contents of his beliefs and desires to simulate his mental states. (Here, the special “I-states” denote real mental states that bear some sort of systematic resemblance to the mental states of the target person.) Moreover, he says that what we do is to simulate “a hypothetical reader of fact” who empathizes with the fictional character in question. So Currie’s solution to the paradox seems to be making up this new mental state (“I-state”) as well as insert an intermediary between us and the fictional character. (It appears to me that the “hypothetical reader of fact” is an unnecessary entity, although some may find it useful for solving what Currie calls the “personality problem,” the fact that we empathize with the kind of fictional characters we wouldn’t empathized with in real life.)

One of the problems I have with these views is their assumption that we really do adopt the beliefs and desires of others in empathizing with real people. How can this be possible? We have no access to other people’s beliefs and desires. We can never truly know them, much less adopt them. Most of time, we only theorize about them. When we attempt to “simulate” them, imagining is the only possible way. Therefore, in my opinion, we always depend on our imagination when empathizing with somebody -- real or fictional.

Another problem is the notion of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and identifying with them. Do we really put ourselves in the shoe of Wall-E, or the beautiful 19th century Parisian courtesan, or the lover of the dying young woman? Do we imagine adopting their beliefs and desires (or “believe-I” and “desire-I” them)? I think what really happens is something more complicated. Here is what I think happens when we "empathize" with movie characters (and with real people to a certain degree):
  • I suspect unconscious activation of one’s own emotional memories in response to the event on screen is often confused with (or constitutes) what we call empathy. (Oatley, a leading figure in cognitive science of fiction and stories, also lists emotional memories as one of the five processes through which fiction evokes emotions, but for him this is a process separate from “identification.”)
  • In some cases, we may become emotional imagining the events in the film happening to us even without simulating the beliefs and desires of the character.
  • Once we form an alliance or attachment with a character, our own desire not to see bad things happen to the people we like may be at play.
  • Automatic arousal in response to emotional expressions at display on screen, should also constitute our “empathy” experience.
  • Furthermore, we sometimes seem to react to the abstract “truth” the event on the screen distills. (e.g., Wall-E’s situation shows us our hopeless bondage to the blind yearning for attachment; Satine’s moment in Moulin Rouge! says that happiness does not last and sometimes you have to pay a horrible price; The end of Love Story reminds us how helpless we are in the face of certain fates.)
My suspicion is that empathy is not a single-process, but an amalgam of different processes that are bundled as one in our subjective experience. When we watch a film, multiple processes -- wonderfully diverse and complex -- may interact with each other, enhancing each other, to create the feeling in us of connecting with the character and feeling for them. This realization (or is this just a misconception?) opens a door to a whole new way of thinking about story-telling for me.

Works cited:

Feagin, S. (1997). Imagining emotions and appreciating fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Currie, G. (1997). The paradox of caring: Fiction and the philosophy of mind. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oatley, K. & Gholamain, M. (1997). Emotion and identification: Connections between readers and fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Other references:

Davies, D. (2007). Aesthetics and Literature. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

My thanks to the members of TMU forms who participated in this discussion thread.


Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

I read (though I don't have the references here) about a study of the brain patterns of sports spectators. That a passive observer experiences stimulation in areas of the brain consistent with the movements of the sportsmen and women they are watching, obviously not to the same degree as the actual participants, but nevertheless, more than just an emotional response.
It seems likely to me that this is happening to some degree while watching drama.
I also found this a while back fascinating also. Amputees can 'experience' a virtual massage by watching someone else have a limb touched. (I saw somewhere else that amputees can use the same technique on themselves my massaging their opposite limb in a mirror)
I'm sure you will be aware of the many therapetic techniques and tests based around dolls. Again forgive my lack of references, but some disorders in children can be indicated by their ability to guess what a *doll* is feeling or their ability to construct a viewpoint for that imagined a doll in a carboard box can't see that the doctor left the room and came back, even though the child can.
I'm pretty sure that the concept of other, and the ability to construct a possible viewpoint for another are biological, and is refined by experience and the ability to observe, and it extends beyond thinking and feeling to in some way mirroring the other.
Empathy in drama must be very complex, a mixture of observation and construction based on the input from everyone who worked on a piece, writer, actors, set designers, sound engineers etc etc.
Each of us will choose whatever stimulus is needed / feels comfortable, whether that's a puppet show or a game of basketball. I think we have a need to get out of our own heads (bodies) sometimes. I suspect that the underlying function of that is related to the mechanism of dreaming in some way.
I know that I am grateful to those who allow me into their world for a while, and I leave with something more than I had.
Maybe like the yoga balances which require two people, it is possible to go further, extend beyond your own capacity to imagine, with another's assistance? - Kate

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...
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Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

deleted previous post as made incomprehensible by my bad typing!
..and again more simply this time.. Saw this flickr group which seemed to relate somehow

sisch said...

This is so interesting! I've been thinking about it ever since the discussion started over at TMU.

Kate Fosks sentence: "I think we have a need to get out of our own heads (bodies) sometimes."

triggered a new train of thought for me - I think that's it - at least for me, and the funny, strange thing about it is; I'm getting out of my own skin and still bring, essentially, me into the other person.

That is how acting works, and that's how I write my characters, and how I read books or watch movies.

When watching a movie, you already are at the point where you want to "forget" about yourself and have new experiences, and maybe do things you would never do in real life. You're wide open. When a character really touches you, he touches things that are already there, things you maybe even wouldn't want to admit to in real life...

Mmm... darn, I think I'm not able to make myself really clear here.. :p

Chat Noir said...
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Chat Noir said...

(Previous comment was deleted because it was posted when I tried to preview.)

Kate and Sisch,

I’m so glad you are interested in this topic!

Kate, I guess you’re talking about mirror neuron? (The neuron that is activated not only when you act, but when you watch someone else act out the same action.) I think that is huge in empathy research and related fields.

Yes, I definitely think there is a biological basis in “empathy,” (and that is what I meant when I said that “automatic arousal in response to emotional expressions at display on screen” might be part of the processes that constitute empathy.) You might be interested in “emotion contagion.” It’s a fascinating concept.
(, sorry for wikipedia reference, but it's convenient!)

“ I'm getting out of my own skin and still bring, essentially, me into the other person.

That is how acting works, and that's how I write my characters, and how I read books or watch movies.”

You put it very nicely: Simulating other people’s mind, but being “essentially me.”

I suspect we extend ourselves in different degrees depending on the context of “empathizing.” (In other words, different mixes of processes must be involved in different kinds of empathy situation.) When watching a movie, I think we are often like a fly on the shoulder of the character. When we read, I can get deeper into the character’s skin depending on the narrative perspective the author takes. (And that is something very interesting to me. Just because we have an intimate access to the mind of the character, just because we see the world in his eyes, we can more or less really “identify” with him, if momentarily.) When I write… Ah, I don’t know what I do… I guess I often try to imagine that I’m inside my characters’ shoes, but I also take the non-empathetic road very often. I anticipate how this person (that I know very well) will react to the situation. I like it when screewriters say they “listen” to what their characters have to say. :) I guess acting must involve a whole different kind of empathy process!

Cathy said...

This is a brilliant and insightful dialog. It made me really *think* about how I behave emotionally when I view a movie or read a book. I realized that I am much more emotionally accessible to films and books than I am to real people! When I prepare to read a book or see a film there is an boundary-lowering activity that takes place, I want to be able to really feel what those characters are feeling. Yet in real life I think I tend to close-off boundaries in an effort to protect myself from feeling too much or getting too involved. BRAVO! An excellent topic for discussion!

Old Folkie said...

@The Cats: Great post, wonderful topic!

@Cathy: That's a good point, the closing off to real characters whereas we are willingly take the plunge with fictional characters.
So true, and yet I actually never thought about the possible safety evaluation working behind that.

Chat Noir said...

Thank you, Cathy and Old Folkie, for your insight! Thank you everybody for such an interesting discussion.

I agree reading books and watching movies involve “boundary lowering.” LewisQ on TMU forum also mentioned that the absence of pragmatic implications may make empathizing with fictional characters easier. As an “unobserved observer” (as Tan calls the film watcher), we don’t have to worry too much about our own interests or being emotionally betrayed when we emphasize with fictional characters. Narratives are also typically constructed in a way that puts our guard down and connect us to the character. And in the end, our "need to get out of our own heads (bodies) sometimes" conspire with all of these. I think this is related to a potential future topic, "what is a story and why do we crave them."