Empathy in Literature and Film

What makes you feel for characters in novels, plays, and movies?

Posted May 18, 2017

My blog post In Defense of Empathy mentioned the role of empathy in literature.   This role requires a mode of empathy based on non-verbal simulation of the experiences of characters in novels, plays, and films.

In The Passionate Muse, Keith Oatley provided an insightful account of the role of emotions in literary fiction.  He summarized:

"Fiction is based on narratives in which characters act on their intentions and encounter vicissitudes. Readers enjoy entering into the lives of characters, following their projects, and coming to empathize with them as their plans progress or meet obstacles. Readers enjoy, too, meeting characters with whom they sympathize, and being reminded of emotional episodes in their own lives."

Similarly, Roger Ebert described empathy in film:

"The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

My favorite novels, plays, and films all include at least one character with whom I can empathize to some extent.

But how does such empathy work in the brain?  In another blog post, I described two modes of empathy based on physiological mimicry and verbal analogy.  For example, if you are watching a movie with the superb actress Meryl Streep, you may have an unconscious physical reaction when she expertly portrays emotions such as joy or fear.  This reaction makes you empathize with her character by experiencing a similar emotion.  More consciously, you can think about a situation that you have experienced that is similar to the one the character is in, and attribute the emotion you experienced to the character.

A third mode of empathy, embodied simulation, is best understood using Chris Eliasmith’s idea of semantic pointers, which are patterns of neural firing that can represent sensory, motor, and emotional information.  They can support rules such as <insulted> -> <hurt>, where the words in brackets indicate semantic pointers using non-verbal representations.  For example, <insult> can include the tone of voice, facial expression, and obnoxious gesture that goes with an abusive remark; and <hurt> is the felt emotional response.  Empathizing with an insulted character in a novel or movie involves running in your own mind the rule so that you can appreciate more directly how being insulted is hurtful. 

As a fictional plot unfolds, series of multimodal rules can then lead to a succession of emotions in the audience that dynamically correspond to those of the characters.  For example, the rule <insulted> -> <hurt> might chain with the rule <hurt>-> <seek revenge> to help understand why a character is acting vengefully. Writers of novels, plays, and film scripts need to be adept at verbal and visual descriptions that enable audiences to run such mental simulations that enable them to understand and care about the characters. 

Camus said that “The first thing for a writer to learn is the art of transposing what he feels to what he wants to make others feel.”  For example, my favorite movie, Casablanca, brilliantly engages the watcher with chains of emotions that include love, regret, sadness, fear, anger, and pride.  We empathize with the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman by simulating their emotions through chains of nonverbal rules.

Related posts:

This is your brain on empathy

Increasing empathy

How to put yourself in someone else’s shoes

In defense of empathy

The new synthesis in cognitive science