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Empathy Matters

Suddenly, books and on-line discussions about empathy are popping up like spring flowers. Since performance animation is all about establishing a sense of empathy with the audience, Ed Hooks weighs in.

Empathy is receiving a lot of academic attention lately. There are 131 books on that have the word “empathy” in the title.  My friend Craig Brookes ( recently directed me to Culture of Empathy, a website that is dedicated exclusively to discussions about empathy and compassion:  The subject is being approached from every possible perspective - psychological, social, political, artistic and neurological.  New York Times columnist David Brooks often writes about empathy, most recently in his September 30th column.

Performance animation is all about empathy, and we discuss it extensively in every class I teach. The word “empathy” is the English translation of the German “Einfuhlung”, which means “to project yourself into what you observe”, and it did not appear in the English language until the 1920’s.  The word “sympathy” has been in use far longer, and that is why the two are at times erroneously considered interchangeable.  Even Charlie Chaplin, the person who literally brought empathy to comedy, never used the correct word.  He said “sympathy” and meant “empathy”. To be very clear:  you, as an animator, should try to create an empathetic response for your character.  It is okay for them to feel sorry for your character (sympathy), but you also need for them to empathize, to identify with the feelings.  If they feel only sympathy, they will begin to distance themselves emotionally from your character.

We empathize only with emotion, not with thinking.  Emotion can be defined as “an automatic value response”, and each person’s expression of emotion depends upon his or her own personal values.  I may be deathly afraid of a mouse, and you have pet mice in your bedroom.  It is a matter of personal values. 

The way that empathy is triggered in acting – on stage and in animation – is through action.  Emotion by itself is not actable and has zero theatrical value.  Acting is doing.  It is nice that you can make a character have the illusion of emotion, but that is not enough.  The formula you want to remember is this:  Thinking tends to lead to conclusions, and emotion tends to lead to action.”  The audience sees what your character is doing and then, through empathy, relates to the emotion that led to that action. 

Empathy is an innate trait in humans. It is necessary because we are social creatures that organize in groups in order to survive.  If a person is unable to empathize, he is a sociopath.  There is a lot of research showing that there is a specific section of the brain that is involved with empathy.  In sociopaths – serial killers and such – that section is inactive.  One of the characteristics of autism is an inability to empathize, which is why autistic children most often do not want to look you in the eye.  They are unable to interpret the emotion they see in you, so it is more comfortable not to see it at all.

There are smart people who assert that an ability to empathize can be developed and strengthened, like strengthening a muscle.  I disagree.  Your ability to empathize is what it is, and it has been with you since birth.  The real issue is not how to increase the ability to empathize, but to acknowledge the values that are behind the emotions we express, and the actions we take as a result.  As David Brooks observes in that September 30th column, the presence of empathy is no assurance that a person will act responsibly or morally.  A human is the only creature that can know something is wrong, and still do it.

Empathy is the wave on which humans ride, and it is the spine of performance art.  Artonin Artaud, the famous French playwright and director, said, “The actor is an athlete of the heart.”  He did not say “athlete of the head” or  “athlete of pixel movers”.  An athlete of the heart traffics in emotion, the expression of human values.