Empathy for the Devil

 Cognitive neuroscientists have lately identified “mirror neurons” that fire not only when we do something but when we watch other people doing the same thing. The same neurons fire when we smile as when we observe someone else smiling. So we literally experience what that person is experiencing inside our own brains.”

That’s from an article in the current issue of  The Writer (June 2009): How to Convey Nonverbal Cues, by Michael Byers. Byers quotes some brilliant passages by John Updike and Alice Adams, and shows that you don’t always have to run through an anatomical litany of eye rolling, shoulder shrugging and brow lifting to convey the nonverbal signals that guide us in our social interactions. You can convey these nonverbal cues to your reader by allowing your character to read and respond to them. It’s a very good article–a real standout in the  “how-to-write” canon.

But what really caught my eye was this passage above, about cognitive neurons. Basically, it’s a scientific explanation for empathy. When I watch someone smile, I feel their joy. And it follows that when someone gets shot in the shoulder, I literally feel their pain. Bill Clinton wasn’t making that stuff up. (This explains why I’ve never made it through an entire showing of Pulp Fiction, despite the brilliance of the dialogue.)

I’ve always felt that empathy–the ability to step into another person’s consciousness and vicariously experience their feelings–is the single most important skill a writer can have. Readers read to experience emotion, to step outside themselves and live some other life, one more exciting, dangerous, or fraught with feeling than their own. To convey that emotion, you have to be able to feel it. Only then can you write it.

 I write contemporary romance. Easy, right? I live in the here and now, and I love someone. Piece of cake.  

But I don’t write autobiographical fiction. Honest, I don’t. That’s not me, frolicking between the sheets with the cowboy. I made it up. Nor have I watched anyone do that, in order to set my neurons firing, thought that might be an interesting exercise. 


No, I have to imagine it, and I have to imagine it richly enough that those neurons light up and I’m in that world, living that life, experiencing everything my character lives through. 

The idea of those neurons firing made me wonder if that response is measurable. Can you wire somebody up with electrodes and measure their response to the feelings of others? Could a test like that distinguish psychopaths and serial killers from the rest of us? And which subset of respondents reacts most powerfully to the emotions of others–middle managers, or CEO’s? Is empathy an advantage in society, or a handicap? 

I’m not sure. But for writers–and for artists, actors, filmmakers and anyone else who works to evoke an emotional response in an audience–it’s a necessity. 

(The image above is from fdecomite on flickr – click image for link.)