Friday, January 15, 2010

Of empathy through simulation, sympathy as a passive observer, and living the lives of the others

Cognitive scientists generally agree that our engagement with a fictional character is a major source of our emotional experience while viewing a film. Yet, the nature of such engagement is under a controversy.

According to popular belief, we "identify" with the protagonist of the story. We are angry when injustice is done to the protagonist as if it was done to us. We are saddened when the main character loses his loved one as if we lost our own. Our heart pumps when our hero is chased by a ruthless killer as if our own life is at stake. This seem obvious. Until you really think about it.

Identification can mean many different things. In the psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer's identification with the hero is considered to take the form of an illusion that one is the character in the movie. In more modern theories, identification is often described as mental simulation of another person. According to the simulation theory of philosophy of mind, we simulate other people's mind by going "off-line" from our normal mental lives and adopting the target person's beliefs (i.e. the knowledge and representation of the world), desires, and even at least some aspects of his personality. If the simulation is successful, we end up with the right emotional outcome of the target person in the given situation (correctly imagined, if not actually felt). Many scholars, Oatley, Feagin, Walton, and Currie to name a few, believe that appreciating works of fiction involves simulating characters' actions, goals, plans and emotions in this manner.

However, there are compelling arguments against this view. Noel Carroll (2008) points out that the viewer often has quite a different emotion from the character in the film. When the heroine is sound asleep as the killer approaches her with a dagger, we don't experience her peaceful oblivion but our own fear for her. When we watch Alfred Hitchcock's hero in Vertigo climb the stairs to the top of the bell tower, what we feel is not fear of height but a concern for the man who has such fear. In watching Saving Grace by Sisch, we may feel sadness and admiration for Grace who is separated from her loved ones to complete a mission for saving the humanity, but we don't simulate her love for Dylan. Do we? Dolf Zillman's (1991) example of children shouting to the TV screen, "Watch out," as well as the same internal urge of adult viewers, testify for the gap between the point view of the viewer and that of the character. Therefore, Ed Tan (1996) says we usually experience the events in the film as "passive observers," rather than in the character's shoe. In Carroll's term, sympathy and solidarity, not empathy, are the main source of the viewer emotion. We don't imagine being the characters, but we feel concerns for them as a separate individual, and we feel strong affiliations with them.

This sounds convincing to me. But does this mean identification/simulation does not happen at all while we watch a movie? Amy Coplan (2004) contends that it is possible for us to experience the belief, desire, and emotion of the character while having our own separate belief, desire, and emotion at the same time. In other words, we can have empathy through simulation and sympathy as a passive observer all at the same time, and the fact that we have third-person emotions while watching a movie (as Carroll points out) does not mean we can't have an empathetic engagement with the character. In fact, Gaut contends that sympathy and empathy reinforce each other. The more sadness you feel in empathizing with Grace, the more concern you may feel for her.

At this point, I wish I had some solid empirical evidence on this matter. Unfortunately, I find solid scientific studies on this subject scarce at best. My general feeling is that our emotional experience during film viewing largely consists of sympathy and solidarity (the emotions as passive observers). But aren't there sparks of moments when we actually feel what the character feels as if we were her? Or is this a mere illusion?

Anyway, what does all this mean to machinima makers?

If you believe in empathy through simulation, you may consider enhancing the viewers' empathetic engagement with your character by aiding their simulation process and make it easier for them. This may mean minimizing potential gaps between your viewers and the protagonist in terms of their beliefs, desires, and personalities (so that the viewer's own mental state would not compete too much with those of the character during the simulation process). This would mean creating characters that resemble the viewers as closely as possible, and advancing the story from your protagonist's point of view.

If you believe that third-party emotions dominate the film viewing experience, you may consider experimenting with a variety of things. You may intentionally create gaps between the viewer and the character, and play with it to rouse different sympathy reactions in the viewer, ranging from concern to suspense. A good use of antagonist may facilitate solidarity between the viewer and the protagonist. Characters radically different from the viewers in term of their beliefs, desires, and personalities would not be in the way of evoking sympathy in the audience, as long as they are likeable.

To me these sound like valid strategies for making your story more engaging and appealing, and something to think about as a student of the craft of fiction writing. But in the end, we want works of fiction to do more than simply rousing our sympathetic reactions to a third person or getting us empathetically engaged with somebody just like us. We want books and movies to give us an opportunity to live the lives of the others, letting us experience the world from different perspectives and, perhaps, even with completely different souls. Do they ever succeed, or is it all just an illusion?

Or perhaps giving the viewer an illusion of an empathetic engagement with somebody radically different from himself is what a story-teller should strive to achieve. Creating an illusion of empathy sounds like a good topic for a future blog.

Work cited:

Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of motion pictures (p. 146-191). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Coplan, A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism (62) 2, 141-152.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. Simith (Eds.), Passionate Views: Film, cognition, and emotion (p. 200-216). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Zillmann, D (1991). Empathy: affect from bearing witness to the emotion of others. In J. Byrant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Human Face

By Kate


Do you feel what I feel on seeing this picture? That little knot in the heart. That subtle pang between the eyebrows.

I am often amazed at what an image of a human face, even completely out of context, can evoke in another person.

Psychologists call it emotional contagion. The theory roughly goes like this. We human beings have an innate tendency to mimic the faces (and postures and prosodies, etc.) of our conspecies with which we're interfacing. As we view others' faces, our own facial musculature instinctively assumes certain aspects of the expressions on them. The subtle muscle tones generated this way in turn create a feedback to our system and thereby produce the very emotion that is associated with the original facial expression.

An interesting theory, although I question if we have to actually mimic the faces in order to be infected with the emotions expressed on them. My own suspicion (as an armchair non-working psychologist) is that evolution must have endowed us with a much more direct route to be attuned with others around us. (In any case, I haven't encountered any empirical evidence that emotional contagion requires actual mimicry.)

Anyways, here is another image of the same actress in the same movie. (You guessed it, it is Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. A fine movie, not my favorite, but that's not the point.)

Her expression is much subtler here. Barely noticeable. But this face still communicates something and draws you in. This is not just because this is a beautiful face (although I'm sure it helps tremendously). Look at the doll version of the same character.

This should be at least as beautiful as the original face, but it hardly does anything to me. I am completely disengaged.

By now some of you (if there is any of you stayed with me until this point) must have sensed where I'm going, given that this blog is about machinima, supposedly. Yes, I sometimes wonder if machinima can ever be as effective as live action films without real human faces -- these exquisite communication devices that bypass your mind and reason and speak directly to your heart. That powerful equipment tested and retested, modified, and built into the very core of who we are, through millions of years of evolution.

At this point I suggest that you watch the following video by Phil "Overman" Rice. (It's really funny anyway.)

So I Ran Over a Monkey from Phil Rice on Vimeo.

It's amusing and amazing. His facial expression at 4:17 into the movie... That subtle mixture of shame, regret and self defense as guilt slowly dawns on him in the process of seeking an escape but finding none. It's all there in that complex human face! Alright. I'm talking nonsense. But you must have gotten the point if you watched the movie. What a great choice it was to put his real face on the screen! Can we ever achieve this level of expressiveness with animated faces? Maybe some Pixar geniuses, possibly. But I doubt any animated machinima actor ever got close to the performance of Overman in So I Ran Over a Monkey, and we're not talking about a professional actor here. Seriously. (Well, the only exception I can think of is the perfectly neutral machinima face I love to use and overuse to the point of an abuse for the Kuleshov effect.)

So what's my point? That machinima is doomed? I suffer from my share of negativity, but I'm not that self-destructive. At least not in public. Whereas I do think machinima suffers from a heavy handicap for being deprived of the magic of the human face, I can see a number of ways in which machinima makers can overcome this shortcoming. Some further thoughts on this matter would make a good topic for my next blog. But now, I end this post with something that I hope would make you feel a little bit better.