Imagine That: The Connection Between Imagination and Empathy

Our empathy muscle grows stronger each time we lose ourselves in a compelling book or a great film.

Illustration by Tom McQuaid / Character Lab
Illustration by Tom McQuaid / Character Lab

Not long ago, I found myself in a heated argument about empathy.

A new friend — someone I’d long admired but only recently met — and I were discussing social inequality.

“I think the real problem is empathy,” I said. “I mean, I care about other people. But I wonder how possible it is for me to truly feel what another person is feeling. I know this sounds awful, but I think there are severe limits to the human capacity for empathy.”

My friend objected. “Wait, this is exactly what people do. You listen to someone else’s story, and you use your imagination to put yourself into their narrative. The details of what they see, what they hear, what they smell… You imagine yourself in their story. Of course human beings are capable of empathy!”

As arguments sometimes do, our debate ended in stalemate.

But the question preoccupied me for a long time. Days later, when I was supposed to be thinking about something else, snippets of our dialogue would resurface. Who was right?

We all have our coping mechanisms.

Mine is Google Scholar. To cope with the discomfort of disagreement, I scoured the academic literature on empathy. It took me a few days, but I came to realize that my friend was more right than I was.

True, human beings tend to be egocentric, experiencing, and reacting to the here-and-now of our lives.

But also true, and out of all species perhaps uniquely so, we’re capable of mentally untethering ourselves from our own narrative and imagining what it is like to walk a path entirely different than our own.

We practice empathy when we lose ourselves in a good book, for instance, or a great film. We do so when we sit down with a friend and, as I clearly need to practice more often, refrain from arguing our own view of the universe and listen, truly listen, to what they’re saying.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University just over a decade ago, author J.K. Rowling said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Try thinking of empathy as a muscle that gets stronger every time you’re transported through stories into a life not your own. And in addition to plays, poems, and novels, read The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki, a wonderful psychologist and neuroscientist at Stanford. “Stories helped our ancestors imagine other lives, plan for possible futures, and agree on cultural codes,” Zaki writes. “In the modern world, they help in a new way: flattening our empathic landscape, making distant others feel less distant and caring for them less difficult.”   

With grit and gratitude,

Originally published at Character Lab

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