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To Dr. Sophie: Dear Sophie, Perhaps you can enlighten me…

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To Dr. Sophie: Dear Sophie, Perhaps you...
To Dr. Sophie:
Dear Sophie,
Perhaps you can enlighten me with another storytelling question and how it relates to the human mind.
I am searching for the components of empathy. In life, we sometimes feel empathy for other people - and sometimes we don´t. We might walk by a homeless man asking for money for food - and ignore him. And we might feel empathy for a mother we´ve never met, who loses her child.
In storytelling, this is extremely important, but rarely spoken of. Many executives believe that we need sympathetic characters to be able to identyfy - but arguing that - they haven´t looked at some of the greatest works of art ever written like Hamlet and Macbeth. Even recent movies of very high standards portrait characters that we dislike in the beginning. Just think of Melvin in "As Good as it Gets" or Will Smith in "Seven Pounds". Wonderful stories, intriguin characters and they definitely create empathy (or perhaps fascination at first - but then empathy and even sympathy.)
So, since the literature of the art of storytelling comes short when it comes to empathy - I wonder what science can tell us about ut. What happens inside the body as we feel empathy and what creates it? There are, I am sure of, components that make us feel empathy that can be used in storytelling as well. As I think about it, isn´t it strange that we can feel empathy with such odd characters like the robot in "Wall E" and "Finding Nemo"? Here, I presume, the effect of mirror neurons will not be as strong as in images of humans - so something else has to be at play.
Any ideas?
/ S.
PS. The author/researcher is Mark Elliot Jung Beeman. I will hopefully talk to him this week. Thanks! DS.
Submitted: 8 years ago.Category: Mental Health
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Answered in 7 hours by:
6/14/2010
Mental Health Professional: Dr. Sophie ::Neurology & Psychiatry, Doctor replied 8 years ago
Dr. Sophie ::Neurology & Psychiatry
Category: Mental Health
Satisfied Customers: 2,951
Experience: Neurology and Psychiatry
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Dear S.,

I got your question. I will need a little time to think how to best answer this.
I have a pretty good idea about major points but want to add sci background if possible.
I also want to revisit some literature I read in about this and look for new human/animal behavior publications.
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Customer reply replied 8 years ago
Thank you! Wish you lived a lot closer to me. Would have lots of things to discuss with such an insighful person. :)
Mental Health Professional: Dr. Sophie ::Neurology & Psychiatry, Doctor replied 8 years ago
Hello again S.,

What a neat thing of you to write. I agree, I think we would have a lot to talk about


By the way, I think I forgot to tell you I watched the movie the other weekend. I really liked the atmosphere and feeling it created -- the dialogue blew right over my head for obvious reasons. The acting was very good and the little girl was superb. As much as dislike smoking, I think it was essential.

So, we are talking about the difference between "I feel for you" - sympathy and "I feel with you" - empathy, which is a significant difference.

I think that evolutionary advantage of empathy developing as a primate trait is rather simple -- to ehnance chances of species survival. Empathy leads to bonding, bonding leads to stronger relationships -- family units, herds, packs, etc and lots of reproduction.

Narcissists, people with anti-social personality disorders have no capability or limited capability identifying verbal and behavioral cues. If they do not bond, they don't have empathy and vice versa. Natural selection? Perhaps.

A lot of autistic persons cannot "read" others' display of emotions and have difficulty displaying their own.

People who do not learn to recognize and empathize with other's feelings of hurt, suffering, loneliness, loss... do not form meaningful bonds with others. To me it seems like evolution at work -- it sort of makes mistakes but then it tries to fix them.

Have you ever watched elephants interact? Yes, two males can be competitive and ferocious at times but a family of elephants is to be admired. After losing a family member and encountering the remains, they handle them gently and respectfully ***** ***** would venture to say -- empathically.

So why do we feel sympathy or even empathy for certain characters in books or films?

I think it has a lot to do with a concept of transference. Here I go with Freud and the only thing I have in common with that cokehead -- and I mean it respectfully ***** ***** something we celebrate every year.

Even though I'm sure you are familiar with it, I'll explain it briefly. When transference occurs we redirect the feelings we have for one person to another individual, real or not.
Something about the person or the character strikes us suddenely and we are immediately reminded, taken back to the time when we knew someone with similar qualities whom we liked, loved, adored, or we can somehow identify with.

There have been studies done about this phenomenon and it's actually been found that patients who remind a physician of a relative, significant other tend to get different (?better) treatment than others. That's countertranference and it's unconscious.

This is also probably why most people want to help a little old lady to cross the street; everyone can see their own grandma in her.

What are your thoughts, though?
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Customer reply replied 8 years ago
Hmmm... I think one aspect of it is that some characters resemble real people more than others. And that probably has to do with the dimensions of character, in other words - the number of contradictions within the character that make them interesting and possible to identify with. For instance, a police who only is a police and does everything right, might not be as interesting or "real" as a policeman that steals... Or a chacter that is both brave and a coward - like Commodus in Gladiator, he is also powerfull and powerless at the same time, etc.
Another aspects that explains the emotion within us is the mirror neurons - which might be the best clue to the biological aspect of empathy.
Freud is really not my cup of tea. I read it everywhere in scholars attempt to explain, for instance, horror as a genre and the attraction of it. And the ideas that the fangs of vampires should be thought of as male genetalia penetrating the skin of females, is just absurd. Freud did have some interesting ideas - but often it is an easy way out for scholars of today to refer to general ideas that can easily be questioned.
So, the qualities of empathy for a character is somewhere in the writing, somehow we are lured into wanting to know more and wanting to understand that character. I believe that people in general do not want that as a begger confronts them on the street, right? So making the characters appeal to be real and create a sense of fascination, perhaps they need a strong desire (characters without desire often becomes boring), and more. I´m not sure where to go on from there... that is why I ask you. ;)
/ S.
Mental Health Professional: Dr. Sophie ::Neurology & Psychiatry, Doctor replied 8 years ago
Hi S.,

I contacted Dr. Ed who is a very good psychologist to help with your question.

I'm not a firm believer in mirror neurons yet. Of note, bulk of work behind this research goes against my anti-cruelty principles.

I will ask the mods to categorize your question to Mental Health/Psychology.
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Customer reply replied 8 years ago
Okay, interesting. I guess empathy is not exactly neurology. Still, you did such an outstanding job on my last question that I could not resist ask you this one as well. :)
I have tried to get in touch with researchers of empathy but have not had any success there yet. Perhaps they did not think an interview about empathy related to storytelling was interesting enough.
Mirror neurons - is it still just a theory or could you consider it to be "true" given all the fact and research? Is there a debate or different theoris about it? You made me interested once again.
/ Steve
Mental Health Professional: Selah R, M.S. LPC, Therapist replied 8 years ago
Selah R, M.S. LPC
Category: Mental Health
Satisfied Customers: 582
Experience: Licensed Professional Counselor; over 13+ yrs exp working with adults, teens, & families/couples.
Verified
I'm going to jump in here because it's so fascinating, but other experts can feel free to join in.

I think we form attachments and relationships with characters (in real life and in movies or literature) when we can identify with their emotions, their past, their current conflicts, or the basic fact that their life is complicated just like ours feel. The more dimensional a character is, the more depth to their story, the more we lock in and care. I'll also add that animators mimic as much human facial expression and body lanaguage as possible into their non-human characters because they know that is a huge help in making us connect. Research has shown us that very young babies can identify the basic human facial expressions (such as sadness, fear, happiness) in just weeks after birth. Research has also long demonstrated that what we "hear" in a conversation is highly dependent upon non-verbal communication (body language, tone of voice, interpersonal distance, facial expressions, etc). Most great books with well developed characters describe these non-verbals, so even though we don't see it, we read it, so our brain still locks in and takes that information as being more reliable or accurrate than the statements made by those characters.

I would say that sometimes we don't connect with people (such as your beggar reference) because we are afraid to identify with them (because if so, we'd have to face or own fear that we could end up in the same position that they are in!). We also may not get the body language from someone with a mental illness that would make us feel that pull to connect with them (such as due to severe depression, substance use, or other serious mental illnesses which can cause "blunted" or "flat" affect; or lack or significant reduction in facial expressions and non-verbal communication).

Ok, I'm going to opt-out too but I want to hear what else gets said in this post!
Selah
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Customer reply replied 8 years ago
Hi!
I agree to most of what you are writing. It´s probably wise to write (if you want to create empathy) characters in situations that are recognisable emotionally. It´s easy for most teenagers to relate to the kind of "new world" or "becoming an adult" in the family of divorced parents in "Twillight". I suppose it´s needed to create believability to some extent for the supernatural elements to come.
Still, I would like to know more about what science and psychology says about empathy. I am sure there must have been numerous studies of what traits, what kinds of situations, that triggers empathy within us. Do you know where to find such studies and how would you relate the findings to storytelling from a writers point of view.
You write that characters need dimensions. Then what creates these dimensions - how would you write a character that has dimensions? And yes, novels of quality make the reader "see" bodylanguage and non-verbal communication. But sometimes we do empathize with hideous characters, with the antagonist and sometimes we do not. This happens even in novels (and movies) where we do have the same kind of descriptions of communication. So, what may be the difference?
I am sure studies have the answers to these questions somewhere, dont you think.
/ S.
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