Scripps Magazine: The Art and Science of Empathy

By Jen A. Miller

Illustrations by Saskia Keultjes

Graphic illustration for The Science and Art of Empathy

Early in her research, President Suzanne Keen—a narrative empathy theorist who studies the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism—became convinced that people are key drivers of empathy.

“My reading and research demonstrate that the positive effects we associate with stories as a device to make empathetic things happen are largely driven by interpersonal human empathy,” she says. “For students to feel the effects of empathy through learning experiences, there must be a person in the mix to guide and inspire them.”

In Empathy and the Novel, published in 2007, Keen drew on psychology, narrative theory, neuroscience, literary history, and philosophy to examine whether the empathy felt while reading fiction developed connections leading to altruistic actions on behalf of real others. Since then, she has expanded on her theory of narrative empathy to explore authorial strategic narrative empathy, empathetic techniques in narratives, narrative empathy evoked by nonfiction, and narrative personal distress.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is far more complex and stratified than just trying to see someone else’s point of view.

“So often you hear that empathy is like putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s not,” says Associate Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Data Science Michael Spezio.

When applied correctly by people who are open to learning from the lived experiences of others, empathy can improve relationships, bring people together, and even strengthen cognitive function.

“When people believe that you care about them, they will perform better,” says Keen.

We asked four Scripps faculty members—all of whom inspire their students to embrace empathetic feelings—about their views on empathy, and why it’s worth exploring through science and art.

Literature bridges lived experiences

What Storm, What Thunder, a 2021 novel by Myriam J.A. Chancy, who holds the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities, doesn’t just tell a gripping story; it also transports readers to a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed 300,000 people in 45 seconds and decimated the country of Haiti. Through the lens of 10 individuals, Chancy, a Guggenheim Fellow, illustrates life in Haiti before, during, and after the natural disaster.

“Through the novel, readers can grasp how each character faces trauma or difficult situations in a different way,” says Chancy. “I didn’t want there to be only one way into a story like this one. Which character with whom they empathize most depends on the reader.”

Literature also can provide an avenue through which someone can creatively share their unique skills and knowledge. For example, says Chancy, Ilene Wong, a urologist who writes young adult fiction under the name I.W. Gregorio, created a young adult world to bridge science and social issues. Her 2015 novel None of the Above introduces a teenager who is intersex, describing the acceptance and ostracization the character faces while also including medical information on what being intersex means.

“As a fiction writer and literary critic, I do think fictional worlds are a way that we can create a sense of understanding,” said Chancy. “It’s still debatable whether we’re able to bridge the gap between sympathy and empathy.”

Openness to empathy is required, but not all empathy is positive

Associate Professor of French Studies Julin Everett describes a variety of situations in which empathy can begin with positive intent but become selfish or exploitative. Performative empathy, for example, may push someone to address others’ suffering (and, perhaps, post about it on their social media accounts), but then they return to their life of comfort. Through victim empathy, the empathizer seeks to morph into the oppressed, so their feelings are more about themself than others. Vampiric empathy describes an environment in which someone feeds off the suffering of others so they can feel something themself. Dark empathy is a form of empathy where a person tries to understand, not feel, what someone else is going through so they can exploit it for personal gain.

Everett also says that while well-intentioned empathy can help people understand each other, it is rarely a completely translational experience. If a woman of color riding the subway is ridiculed on TikTok for having a skin condition, as happened to Lily Simon, a 33-year-old Brooklyn resident who was filmed by a stranger on the subway and falsely accused of having monkeypox, a White woman with a similar skin condition can empathize with her—to an extent, Everett said, because nothing will completely bridge that gap between experiences of living as different races.

Even so, people must be open to empathy, says Everett, because empathy can help people better understand one another and turn toward a positive goal. That’s especially true in the classroom, where students and faculty from different backgrounds collaborate despite different lived experiences. Empathy may not enable two students from different political backgrounds to live in perfect harmony, but it can help them understand what experiences brought them to form those opinions and stances.

“You have to recognize that empathy may challenge what we say are our morals and ethics,” Everett said. “When tragedy is presented to you, empathy is not something that happens automatically. It’s something that one must will, cultivate, and practice.”

Empathy, sometimes exploited for crime, can help victims heal

Professor Stacey Wood, who holds the Molly Mason Jones Chair in Psychology at Scripps, has studied the consequences of dark empathy in her research and clinical practice. Through her research on decisional capacity and elder abuse, she often meets senior citizens who are victims of scams and financial fraud perpetrated by family members or strangers who take advantage of the empathy the senior feels toward them.

“The senior wakes up in the morning and everything’s fine, then checks their email to find their money is gone,” Wood says. “Often the emotional distress related to the scam’s impact is worse than the financial loss.”

Victims of financial exploitation may show symptoms of depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, rumination, nightmares, disrupted sleep, and an increased risk of suicide. Older adults may not report having been scammed, even by professional criminals, because they’re worried that their family and friends may see it as a sign of cognitive decline and limit their autonomy.

“Fraud victims are crime victims,” Wood says. “If we try to change the cultural narrative to support and believe victims, they will be more open about their experiences. Then we can shift the focus on prevention and protection and away from blaming.”

Families and other support resources that use their empathetic imaginations to put themselves in elder financial fraud victims’ shoes will be better positioned to understand and to provide constructive options for recovery.

Empathy builds the brain

Mounting evidence shows that empathy has positive physical impacts on the brain.

Associate Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Data Science Michael Spezio, who posits that empathy can be built and that doing so improves brain function, is developing an idea that humans’ ability to theorize others’ mental states to explain and predict behavior is a hallmark of human cognition.

In work funded by the National Science Foundation, Spezio used computational modeling to study the cognitive function of people cooperating versus competing. He found that those in the cooperating group had a slightly deeper and longer temporal horizon, thinking further into the future when evaluating outcomes.

“People tend to engage in more accurate, complex theory of mind when they’re cooperating,” he says. “Trying to empathize and understand another person’s values, beliefs, feelings, and tensions improves cognition.”

Even people in competitive environments, such as athletics, can reap the benefits of empathy in the context of achieving a greater goal. For example, students trying out for their college lacrosse team may compete among themselves, but also collaborate to field the team most likely to propel them on to championship success. That’s why helping another player recover (rather than leaving them in the mud) is the empathetic and smart thing to do.

“Investigating and modeling empathy computationally and mathematically suggests that cooperation results in deeper theory of the mind and more complex thinking,” says Spezio. “Empathy makes us stronger together.”

The following passage is excerpted from an afterward that President Keen wrote for Literature as a Lens for Climate Change: Using Narratives to Prepare the Next Generation (Lexington Books, 2022), a collection of essays that offers a practical approach for using literature to engage and empower students to confront aspects of climate crises. 

The human capacity for empathy, piggy-backing on biological substrates that support human intersubjectivity, doesn’t automatically extend beyond our immediate tribe to distant or dissimilar others or to the inanimate world. Yet skillful creators, who use their own empathetic imaginations to call invented beings out of thin air, can evoke authentic sensations of recognition, compassion, indignation at injustice, and even empathy for insensate elements (such as a crumbling cliff, eaten away by a rising ocean).

Much depends on the readers invited into imaginative co-creation by writers, and, I will suggest, on the teachers who construct reading circumstances for maximum impact. I have spilt a lot of ink arguing that there’s nothing automatic linking an experience of narrative empathy and altruistic action taken in the real world. Indeed, I have argued that fictional texts receive strong empathetic collaboration from readers in part because these stories don’t demand anything in return. A reader can safely indulge in shared feelings with a fictional character, secure in the knowledge that the character can’t turn around and ask for help. So the goal of using literary works, in this case a growing corpus of superb young adult (YA) writing, to stimulate concern for, awareness of, and action on behalf of the planet faces a fundamental obstacle. The books won’t do it alone.

Happily, the world still has teachers, professors, and librarians, magnificently represented by the ingenious experts whose essays you have just read. Whether their strategies involve supplying nonfictional accounts and studies to bolster the messages of fiction, inviting students to engage in role-taking or perspective-taking exercises in response to their reading, or urging students to attend to nature when they create their own haiku, these teachers take the extra steps that make the results of reading more likely. With multiple aims in mind—of encouraging caring for the natural world, developing environmental awareness, and stimulating climate activism — these teachers also attune their students’ literary sensibilities and creative expression to the needs of the world they live in. They do so with hope and encouragement, working to develop their students’ growth mindsets and countering the despairing nihilism of some environmental dystopic writings.