Empathizing. moviegoers

Losing the ability to empathize. 

When mamals, largish brained creaturess, first evolved, they needed to be able to learn fairly complex actions in order to survive. It was much easier if they could learn these complex actions from watching other creatures, especially their parents. So when a number or mutations turned up that enabled this, they became dominant. several of these early mutations evenually produced empathy. The creatures that had empathy had a distinct advantage over creatures that did not, and the better a creature was at it, the more successful it was at learning, being cooperative, and able to live in large groups. This is because, how creatures feel is written in their facial expressions, their body posture and their actions. Imitating those postures and expressions allows the imitator to feel what the creature being imitated was feeling. This is the beginings of the theory of mind, where creatures become able to atribute intentions to other creatures, and in its most complex form is a kind of mind reading where one guesses what another creature is going to do.

Many creatures make use of empathy in various ways. At the moment, the practice of empathy in the home and school is generally thought to be detrimental once our native language has been learned and is thus discouraged, especially in the making of decisions, which are supposed to be logical as opposed to being emotional. This often ends with empathy being discouraged or suppressed. Although one of the essential ways humans use empathy is as the starting point of communication with parents, it is this very usefullness that makes it seem inessential when its need in this regard is over. As children learn symbolic vocal language, its necessity in communication fades and with it we tend to lose or suppress our ability to use empathy in the pursuit of genius.  

dolls Empathy as many layers slowly developed by evolution. empathic layers

Empathy nurtures creativity in numerous ways and that is because empathy is not just one thing. Rather empathy is a series of evolutionary mutations that slowly build on one another and were found to work with one another. Although many of these evolutionary mutations were kept for one reason, but they became useful for other reasons. When combined with earlier mutations their primary reason for being kept by evolution would change. 

emocont layers    2

In his book "The Age of Empathy" Frans de Waal explains this as follows:

"Empathy engages brain areas that are more than a hundred million years old. The capasity arose long ago with motor mimicry and emotional contagion, after which evolution added layer after layer, until our ancestors not only felt what others felt, but understood what others might want or need. The full capacity seems put together like a Russian doll. At its core is an automated process shared with a multitude of species, sourounded by outer layers: Only a few take another's perspective, something we are masters at. But even the most sophisticated layers of the doll normally remain firmly tied to its primal core."

empathic primates

fish school Synchrony and herding. school 

Possibly the oldest mutation associated with empathy is that of hearding and synchrony. This was an important evolutionary development that offered creatures a better chance of survival by grouping together and generally mimicking eachothers movements. Many types of creatures early on the evolutionary parth were well served by this development. We see this in birds that flock toether, in fish that swim in schools and no doubt in many dinasaurs that traveled in herds. Out of this may have developed the mating rituals of animals in which while the animals are not exactly mimicking one another are nevertheless synchronized.

mimic Mimicry.

Synchronary probably developed into a more intensive and exacting motor mimicry through further mutation resulting in exactly copying body posture, which gave animals, for the first time, some clues to what emotions the other animals were experiencing. They discovered that when they assumed the posture of other animals they also began to experience the emotion the other animal was experiencing. This was then probably further enhanced by mutations that allowed animals to mimic facial expressions which would have given them even greater perception of the emotions other creatures were experiencing. This obviously led to the survival atribute of being able to predict what other creatures were likely to do. This has also led creatures with this ability, to be subject to emotional contagion, which has both good and bad consequences for the creatures.

parent care Parental care. bird mother

While this was all happening, somewhere during this period, an unrelated mutation occured and was also kept by evolution for its survival value. Some species of animals began caring for their young. They began feeding them the food they obtained themselves, and even began to put themselves in danger in order to protect their young from preditors. This was a huge evolutionary success story and is to be seen in most mamals marsupials and birds. From this mutation probably all unselfish caring behavior probably originates. It is easy to imagine a few evolutionary misteps which result in animals caring for creatures other than their own young. Obviously when this proved useful evolution would tend to keep it. So it is that some animals care for injured or ailing mates, their parents when they are unable to help themselves and sometimes just another creature in their group. Although these developmens did not directly improve the creatures survival or even the success of their progeny, it did improve the evolutionary success of their group.


When the syncrony developments are combined with (parental) care we get creatures that not only have some idea of what other creatures are feeling but are driven to do something about helping those other creatures. This it is believed has led to animals experiencing sympathy for other animals and in consequence taking action to aleviate their discomfort or pain or to rescue them from probable danger. Thus we we are able to find various animals that give consolation when other animals are injured or defeated and indeed provide targeted healping to those other animals. Many examples of this are given in the book "The Age of Empathy" by Frans de Waal.

brain to brain Mirror neurons. abstract       

One of the mutations that occured in humans, apes and perhaps several other large brained creatures (dolphins whales and elephants) has been called mirror neurons. These are neurons which fire both when and action is performed, and when it is observed, occur in humans and ape's brains. It is thought that what these mirror neurons do is cause automatic programs to run to imitate in response to observing an action by another creature. Although these initial programs are very simple they quickly improve by imitative trial and error learning. In many ways they are indicators of superior learning ability as they make learning new actions easier if they can be first observed in others. These early imitated actions also formed the bases of all communication. It is not yet clear how many species of animals have these neurons, but it does not seem unlikely that they might exist in all creatures that are known to learn behaviors by observing their parents.

monkey see

perspectiveHumans and empathy and perspecive taking.

Ultimately, empathy in humans has lead to its latest form, that of theory of mind, mindreading and perspective taking. All of which has served us well in dealing both with other creatures and our own species. These tools are essential for any learning to take place as they are an essential part of our ability to transfer meaning thus allowing useful activities to be both learned and modified. The way it allows modification of actions is one way in which it serves creativity. But a more important way it serves creativity is that it allows us to take the perspecive of inanimate objects.

empathy Empathy, communication, learning and language.

At its core empathy is responsible for all complex communication. It is essential for us to be able to communicate enough with others during our infantsy to allow us to learn our native languages. Without it, or something very like it, language simply would not be learned at all. Humans use empathy as the starting point of communication with parents, but go on to use it to learn about other creatures that they could never properly communicate with. Ultimately humans adaped it as the tool that makes symbolic language possible. Most of the automatic programes we learn in infancy have to be suppressed. It is this suppression of various motor schemas that allows the formation of our initial symbols. Empathy has given us many cultural inovations such as cooperation, resiprosity and graduated feelings of kindness, strongest with our children and which get gradually weaker and weaker as it stretches to include other animals, all living creatures and even some things that are not living.  

artist Empathy and creativity. camera

Empathy nurtures creativity in several ways. Firstly, without it there would be no experience of art at all because we all experience art by means mostly of empathy. Every book, every painting, every dance every play or movie we wxperience by identifying with some part of the work. The same is true of invention and inovation. Secondly, by allowing us to understand what others want it enables creators to create that which others will enjoy and want. Thirdly, by enabling us to experience what other humans experience, what other creatures experience, it adds enormously to the creator's spectrum of experience making possible the presentation of differing points of view within a work enabling endless novelty. This culminates in creators being able to insert themselve into objects and systems so that they become that object or system and are better able to judge its purposes and outcomes.    

turn off Empathy is a tool. Tools need to be turned on and off.  money

All of the 13 tools of genius have pluses and minuses. But when it comes to empathy it is both essential to our continued existence (we must be able to turn it on), and highly dangerous to our continued existance (if we cannot turn it off). On the one hand empathy is the glue that holds civilization together. Without it we would not be able to cooperate and we would have little idea of what motivates others and what they might be likely to do in various situations.

On the other hand empathy has a dark side. Unlike the other tools, which mostly have little downside, empathy has a real problem, in that if we are too sensitive we actually can feel all the pain and suffering of others and all their negative emotions. We suffer with them. If this is not balanced by the feeling of positive emotion and pleasure empathic people can be draged down into depression. When humans are in the presence of a lot of pain and suffering it can take an enormous toll on them. 

Also, obviously, we cannot be sypathising with someone who is trying to kill us. Surprisingly though, in face to face confrontations, we do tend to empathize with our attackers or enemys. This has always posed a grave problem for the military.

If we are to be able to use empathy for good purpose we must first be able to lower the pain we ourselves experience by observing them. One way we can accomplish this is by means of habituation. We simply get used to the pain of it and don't notice it so much as time goes bye. By itself this process is not enough. Fortunately evolution has provided us with many ways we can turn down and turn off the triggering of empathy.  

So while being a little more empathic might make us more creative it might also be highy dangerous to us. What creators need to do is find an empatic balance that enables them to use empathy to create but does not cause them to suffer too much. This is all a matter of taking control of the mecanisms that both trigger empathy and allow us to turn it down or off.


switch How can we take controle of the mecanisms that trigger empathy and turn it off?

Some of the primitive ways we can take controle of our empathy have been found to exist in primates as well as humans. In his book "The Age of Empathy" Frans de Waal explains:

"While testing capuchins with selfish versus prosocial options, we found three ways in which we could kill their tendency to be nice.

The first is to pair them with a stranger: They are in a much more selfish mood with partners that they've never met before. This fits the idea of the in-group as the cradle of cooperation."

This certainly tends to be true of most humans as well. We are much more likely to empathize with relatives and those with whoom we have a friendly relationship and we are less likely to empathise with those who are strangers to us. Indeed as Hitler and others discovered, we can be completely divorced from empathic feeling toward particular individuals, if they are dehumanised in our eyes. Those who convine themselves that negros are a lower species do so in order to prevent empathy with them. The Jews were not only dehumanised, by Natzi proaganda, which religated them to being part of a lower species, but were also likened to vermin. De Waal continues:

"The second, even more effective way to reduce prosociality is to put the other out of sight by sliding a solid panel between both monkeys. Even if the monkey making the choice knows the one on the other side well and has seen the other through a small peephole, it still refuses to be prosocial. It acts as if the other isn't there, and turns completely selfish. Aparently, in order to to share they need to see their partner."

This lack of empathy when we do not see is evident in many ways we use to suppress this trigger. For instance we are much more likely to give help if we see someone in need than if we are told about someone. Charities always give us some photo of an unfortunate to focus on. If we do not wish to feel empathic toward a beggar we will tend to look away. Indeed, even if some one in need is right there, if we are not paying attention we will not be empathic. We are also capable of performing many atrocities if we do not have to see them carried out. It's so much easier to drop a bomb than kill with knife up close. De Waal continues: 

"The third way to eliminate acts of kindness is perhaps the most intriguing, since it relates to inequality. If their partner gets a superior reward, our monkeys become reluctant to pick the prosocial option. They are perfectly willing to share, but only if their partner is visable and gets what they get themselves. As soon as their partner is better off, competition kicks in and interferes with generosity."

This too is very true of humans. Lack of equality does leed us to be both competative and resentful of those who recieve or have more than ourselves. We may even feel agressive toward those who have more and that may cause us to be even less moved by their suffering. Of course any kind of anger or agression tends to nulify our ability to have empathy triggered in us. De Waal continues:

"Warfare is psychologically complex, and seems more a product of hierarchy and following orders than of aggression and lack of mercy. We are definately capable of it, and do kill for our country, but the activity conflicts at the deepest level with our humanity."

The human military organizations have long known that the only way to get soldiers to kill is to take away the responsibility for it, by making it a matter of following orders. At the same time they train soldiers to react instantly, in an habitual way, so the act is performed before the soldier has time to think or feel empathy.

Some other ways people avoid triggering empathy or lessen its impact are by considering it a cost of time, effort or resourses, by purposely or acidently misunderstanding the need for empathy, by simply not thinking about those in need, by seeing it as a danger and not wanting to get involved, by telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do, and by thinking someone else will do it. Surprisingly the more people there are about the less likely people are to help.

girl reader Empathic thinking in art and entertainment.  actress

Creativity that moves us, does so primarily by means of empathy. All art reaches us by means of empathy. Each time, the person experiencing the art or entertainment, is caused by the work to identify with something in that work. In novels or plays we are usually meant to identify with the hero or the protagonist, the main or central character in the work. Often the protagonist is the person narating the work in the first person. Even though we may not be identifying with any but the protagonist the other characters actions and beliefs have to be sufficiently understanable to us that the predicament of the protagonist does not seem silly. This is not always the case however that we only identify with the protagonist. Sometimes the reader or playgoer is caused to identify with all the characters seeing the same events from each caracter's point of view in turn. The imortant thing is that the work have at least one character who can be identified with. When a work has no characters in it that we can identify with, it is difficult to enjoy or be entertained by its story. To allow us to identify with a character that character has to have enough quatities like ourselves that we would want to feel what he/she is feeling, we have to want to walk in their shoes and experience the emotions they are experiencing. This kind of identification is enjoyable because it is practice for mind reading that is essential for our survival. It is also a safe environment where such feelings can be experienced without any lasting danger. It's kind of like learning to fly on a flight simulator.

The creators of these identification templates (protagonists), in turn must also empathize. They all have to be able to empathize in order to imbue each character with his or her authenticity. Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein in their book "Sparks of Genius" explain:

"Every fictional character who has a ring of autenticity was created by an author who could, through imagination, so deeply live that character's experience that he could bring it to life also for the reader. Literature, we have repeatedly found, provides a rich resourse for feeling a student's imagination, a necessary accomplishment if the skill of empathy is to be mastered."

[Writers, actors, and physicians] "...learn to understand other people not only objectivly from the outside but subjectively from the inside. It is this aspect of 'becoming other,' of play-acting that distinguishes empathizing from imaging or proproiceptive thinking. The key to empathizing is learning to perceive the world through someone elses mind and body."

movie Empathic thinking in cinema and television. movie

The movies were like no other art form before them. The first movies were very much like plays photographed from a distance, and like them had to rely on gross body posture and modulated speech to allow viewers to exprience a very coarse impression of each character's emotions. However, the cinema eventually invented the closeup. From then on patrons were able to experience the most subtle emotions as conveyed by the tinyest flicker of facial movement closeup on the big cinema screens. In his book "The Age of Empathy" Frans de Waal comments:

"The moment we buy a movie ticket, we choose to identify with the leading character, thus making ourselves vulnerable to empatizing. We swoon when she falls in love or leave the theater in tears because of her untimely death, even though it's just a character played by someone we don't personally know."

chemistry Learning, science and empathic thinking. prof

Creativity at genius level and the ability to generate new and startlingly origninal ideas has always involved the ability to leave ones own situation and imagion yourself in the situation of the problem one is trying to solve. Nobody saw this more clearly than the philosopher Sir Karl Popper who went as far as to say:

"I think the most helpful suggestion that can be made...as to how one may get ideas in general [is] ...sympathetic intuition or 'empathy'. ...You should enter into your problem situation in such a way that you almost become part of it."

Deep learning of science (real understanding) requires the learner be able to put himself in each scientist's shoes, do what he did and try to follow the though processes that led him to make his discoveries. As reported in the book "Sparks of Genius," Thomas Khun was a great believer in this for both learning and unleashing creative potential:

"Thomas Khun, preemenent historian of science in this century, taught his students to penetrate a scientist's work by recreating his or her life step by step. Read the existing documents in chronilogical order, he advised, and when you can predict accurately the subject of the next letter or paper that scientist writes, you are begining to understand your subject. If you are wrong you must start again from some other perspective, because you have not yet grasped the essence of the life you study. You are not yet thinking and acting like a scientist." 

Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein in their book "Sparks of Genius" go on to say:

"Indeed, we have found that practitioners of every art , science and humanistic profession use empathy as a primary tool, for it permits a kind of understanding that is not atainable by any other means."

Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein in their book "Sparks of Genius" then give examples:

"...Desmond Morris, whose best-known work, 'The Naked Ape,' is an interpretation of man as animal, argues that truly empathizing with animals does not result in anthopomorphizing at all but represents a method for freeing oneself of human perceptions. As a teenager, Morris's interest in animals became so intense that he began to dream about them not as the humanized characters of a Disney cartoon but as if he had become an animal himself." 

Morris explains his study method as follows: "With each amimal I studied I became that animal. I tried to think like it, to feel like it ...I attempted as a research ethologist to put myself in the animals place, so that its problems became my problems, and I read nothing into its lifestyle that was alian to its particular species. And the dream said it all." 

Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein continue:

"Thomas Eisner, who has pioneered the study of the chemical defence and communication systems of insects, has had similar play-acting dreams. ...'Once I [even] dreamed that I was an insect talking to insects and telling them I dreamed I was human."

"...Barbara McClintock, who worked on genetics of corn and various other living things. She spent so much time with her plants and the preparations of their genetic material that she knew them intimately, as individuals. She quite literally took the time to 'make friends' with them... In the end McClintock says she developed 'a feeling for the organism' so profound that she actually felt that she became a gene or a cromosome herself."

"Physical scientists also rely on play-acting and empathizing for insights. Organic chemist Peter Debye explains: 'You had to use your feelings - what does a carbon atom want to do ?' Einstein...would view the universe from the perspective of a photon. For Ernest Rutherford, 'Atoms and alpha particles were as real...as his friends,' and he became angry when a colleague suggested they were just theoretical constructs."

"Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar made many discoveries in astrophysics by imagining the universe 'from the point of view of a star,' and Richard Feynman revolutionized quantum physics by asking himself question such as 'If I were an electron, what would I do?'" 

"Charles F. Kettering, director of research at General Motors for many decades, would often reprimand engineers who got carried away with complex calulations and models by saying something like, 'Yes but do you know what it feels like to be a piston in an engine?"

emergency room Physicians and empathic thinking. doctor

Doctors of course not only need to be creative but are in a profession where they are surrounded by people in pain. On the one hand, doctor empathy is essential in understanding what is happening in the bodies of their patients and gaining their trust, but on the other, too much empathy leaves doctors vulnerable to actually experiencing the same pain as others on a contuing basis. Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein continue:

"Indeed, many medical educators assert that the ability to become, transiently, one's patient is a skill that differentiates the best clinitians from the rest. Empathizing is 'a key skill for the practice of any helping relationship,' asserts E. A. Vastyan a medical educator at Pennsylvania State University. The empathic caregiver recognizes the patients's unspoken fear when an unfamiliar test or proceedure is ordered He or she responds to patients with such sympathy and understanding that they are willing to reveal their medical symptoms and secrets to a stranger, willing to cooperate in proceedures that may give them pain or a prognosis they would rather not hear, willing to unveil bodies or minds they would prefer to keep to remain hidden. This ability to enter into the 'very skin of another personis so much a part of psychiatry that Alfred Margulies has written a book on the uses of psychiatric empathy entitled, appropriately, 'The Empathic Imagination'"

"Rita Levi-Montalcini, [was] a physician who empathized so strongly with her patients that she had to leave active practice to save herself from the mental anguish this caused, transfered her ability to the study of cellular growth and the factors that control it."

Practice as iterative improvement is a necessity for life long creativity.

If we are to preserve an extra ability to empathize, beyond what most of us still retain, and thus multiply our creative ability and improve our chance of achieving genius status later in life, this tool needs to be continually practiced, with a view to continual improvement, throughout life. If we continually try to perform improved empathy in our daily lives we will find this ability not only does not fade, but rather becomes stronger until it may be manipulated in the ways here described to create the unique and new as is expected of a genius. By concentrating on the use of verbal language and logic and purging our brains of emotion, we will not find ourselves more creative and genius like, but rather less so. This site asserts that every effort should be made to retain more of this invaluable facility or tool as it is useful for a whole range of human activities, not just creative ones and is essential to learning itself.

Much of the time most modern day people, are in all probability, suppressing their empathy for others, for cultural reasons. In doing so, they may be depriving themselves of a rich variety of data that could well form the basis of new and unique ideas. Sure, the trigering of empathy can be dangerous, but if we are fully in control of its triggering it is a risk worth taking. For us to have a chance at being a genius, life long, increasing and improving use this tool, may be a must.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Prodigies Genius Creativity Social Creativity Thin Slicing Observing Imaging Abstracting Recognizing Patterns
Forming Patterns Analogizing Enaction Dimensional Modeling Playing Transforming Synthesizing