Empathy, Fiction and Imagination


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Where does empathy come from? How did empathy evolve? Why can we "feel" for fictional characters? These are some of the questions explored in a collection of papers on Empathy, Fiction, and Imagination.

Many people associate empathy with being social, yet it can't be that simple. Ants, bees, and termites are so social we had to coin a special term for it: eusocial. Yet it is not empathy that drives their sociality, but pheromones, castes, and a simple set of rules that each ant follows depending on its birth order and age in the colony.

Nonetheless, most "theories of mind" to explain empathy assume that we evolved the ability to model each other's minds because we need to understand each other. We have "mirror" neurons which enable us to copy each other. 

In most models of empathy, it is assumed that empathy evolved to facilitate reciprocal altruism.

Direct Perception Theory (DPT), for instance: 

We perceive immediately in other beings’ expressions what they experience. For this to happen, face-to-face and intersubjective interaction is necessary. Some of them consider empathy to be an automatic, pre-reflective perception and paring with the other’s experience. Others object that the traditional empathy concept did not require affective isomorphism and that it was always distinguished from both contagion and feeling-with the other.

Fiction, then, is a challenge.

Why can we feel empathy for persons that are not real, such as characters in a book or a movie? We can mirror them, but they can not mirror us. They can't talk back, either to reward or retaliate.

When we imagine things, we represent Others in our mind; we project and model minds that do not actually exist or is not present. Yet fiction works precisely because we can still feel empathy for these imaginary people, even if there is no direct interaction or reciprocity. 

This is important because empathy is a crucial part of our experience with fictional stories, as when we grieve for a character who has lost a loved one.

It is obvious that in fictional and imaginary contexts—such as a fictional film, a novel, a play, or a mental image such as a daydream, a fantasy, a memory, an expectation—the other is not really present but represented, namely via imagination.

Here, we consider imagination to be the representation of an object which is either non-existent, or absent, or which is present elsewhere... the relationship between readers and fictional characters, for instance, is, from an ontological perspec- tive, a unilateral, asymmetric relationship; the objects of our empathy (as readers) cannot reciprocate our empathy for them. 

Yet, empathy is a crucial empirical and norma- tive feature of fictional experiences: Readers, moviegoers, theater audiences, video games players, etc. all claim to feel empathy for the protagonists with which they are cognitively and emotionally engaged. However, it would be an ontological confusion to speak of a face-to-face interaction. Fictional characters are not given to us in a direct and immediate way.

The authors of this collection come at the issue from a predominantly phenomenological perspective, which I fail to find persuasive. Nonetheless, the essays are thought-provoking. For me, the questions raised were more satisfying than the answers.

If the other is merely a creature of an author’s imagination, then to speak about “taking over the other’s perspective” has a different meaning and impact than in the case of a real person: what does it mean to have a perspective? Whereas real persons see their world from their individual view point—which is shaped by their experiences, character, emotions, etc.—a fictional character expresses and represents a perspective that is narrated within a narrative, scripted by an implicit or explicit author. Whose perspective is it, then, that we empathetically comprehend? And do we learn something in this process? 

And now for the shameless plug: I write fiction, including an epic fantasy about a world where dancing paints the world with the colors of magic and a young woman stands alone against the powers of Death to bring back a lost race of fae. You can read the first book free here.