Pretty much one year ago I was in the middle of writing my bachelor thesis. I explored the connections between viewers and animation-characters. And to do that I read and learned a lot about empathy and sympathy. Now character animation may not have a lot to do with what we all do in the studio but empathy is something we encounter every day.
It’s something we’re all born with. It’s what makes us decipher if our project team members like our new idea or not. It’s what helps us decide on the most “appropriate” secret Santa gift. It’s what makes us feel pain when someone else bumps their foot into a chair. It’s basically always there and we can’t turn it off. Now that’s empathy in a nutshell. Not really though.
Sympathy vs. empathy
To fully understand empathy, it’s important to outline the difference between empathy and sympathy. Two words that often get confused.
Sympathy is the first connection that blooms between two people. A positive kind of sympathy towards another person often has to do with rather superficial similarities. Sympathy is something highly subjective and doesn’t involve the attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other person.
Empathy emerges when we leave our subjective sphere and put ourselves into the shoes of another person. We imagine what it’s like to be this other person in this situation instead of thinking of what we ourselves would do in the same situation. And the cool thing about empathy is, that it creates a connection stronger than the connection you may build with sympathy alone.
If you’re interested I highly recommend watching this short little video about empathy. It’s fun:
What makes up a human connection?
The search for similarities builds the base of a connection (you’re right, I’m talking sympathy). Similarities both in superficial things and in everything that has to do with character. Once the base is there, a deeper connection can happen with the help of empathy. A conscious acceptance of the other persons individuality and uniqueness is one part of building an empathetic connection. Another part is made up by the miraculous work of the mirror neurones in our brains. Shared past experiences or even just similar past experiences make it easier to connect too.
What’s the deal with mirror neurones?
Mirror neurones are the brain cells we need to be able to empathise with others. They enable us to feel what others are feeling by pretending that we do the same thing. So if someone reaches for an apple and eats it, your mirror neurones will make you feel like you did that exact same thing too even though you didn’t move an inch. With this ability we can put ourselves into the shoes of others. Neat, right?
Now the same thing goes for facial expressions. It’s not a coincidence that you feel slightly worried when your team member looks worried. And all that just works because you have the same facial expression — not actually in your face but inside your brain — with the help of those tiny, lovely mirror neurones.
Now that’s not all. Mirror neurones don’t only work in the present moment. They can see into the future. ~(°o°)~
They are linked to each other neatly and with a bit of context we can anticipate the other persons next move. Take this actual experiment as an example: People were shown videos for a person reaching for a cup on a table. In one scenario it was a well-laid table and in the other one it was an untidy table. Now in the first scenario the mirror neurones reacted stronger because they realised that the motion of the hand reaching for the cup would mean that the person will drink something and drinking is more essential to human lives then cleaning the table — believe it or not.
The six habits of highly empathetic people
Last but not least, I wanna list the six habits of highly empathetic people one author listed in one of the many books I read for my thesis.
- Change you own way of thinking about empathy. Realise that empathy is a core trait of every human and that it has to do with almost every aspect of your life.
- Consciously put yourself into the shoes of others. Doing that will make you see the individuality of the other person, their perspective and it’ll make you realise that they are humans just like you. Random inspirational video!
- Be curious and work on getting involved with other cultures and human lives that stand in contrast to your own.
- Learn to communicate. Learn to listen and in your conversations and try to get rid of masks that are put upon people by social norms. Don’t get stuck in small talk but try to reach deeper conversations and topics.
- Learn to understand characters and empathise through art, literature and film.
- Bring empathy to a global level and learn to empathise with the world and nature surrounding you. Here’s another random video!
And that’s it.
Text wall over. Sandra out.