Notes on Empathy, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Theatre/Education

Rhonda Blair

To Cite this Article

Blair, R. (2015). Notes on Empathy, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Theatre/Education. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 2.

Empathy is at the heart of theatre, performance, and education. In order to connect with what the other person is feeling, we need empathy. In order to understand what the other person is saying or doing, we need empathy. As teachers, we need to be empathetic with our students in order to meet them “where they live.” The same is true for directors working with actors. As actors, we need to be able to empathize with and advocate for our character, no matter how heinous her behavior. Different languages have different words for empathy that both point to similar things and present similar difficulties in terms of specificity of meaning. “Empathy” can be “empathie” (Fr.), “empatia” (It., Sp.), “Empathie” or “Einfühlung” (Ger.), or “soperezhivanie” (Rus.). It’s related in some ways to “sympathy” (Eng.), “compassion” (Fr.), “comprensione” (It.), “compasión” (Sp.), “Sympathy” or “Mitgefühl” (Ger.), and “sochuvstvie” (Rus.). All these words encompass ways in which we are connected to each other. But the word “empathy” in its various forms is often used loosely, describing a whole range of things and letting us off the hook about what we might mean by “empathy” at any given moment.

Though in some ways a variant continuation of the concept of sympathy described by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, empathy had its beginnings in philosophy as Einfühling, coined by Robert Vischer in 1873 and literally meaning “feeling into” or “in-feeling.” It was soon used by Theodore Lipps, first in his discussion of the psychology of aesthetic experience and later in regard to the psychology of intersubjectivity, in which empathy meant the “inner imitation of the perceived movement of others” (cited in Gallese 2001, 43, italics mine). The term appeared in English in 1909 as “empathy,” translated by psychologist Edward Titchener and derived from the Greek “to make suffer.” In cognitive and neurosciences, the study of empathy is complex, multifaceted, and rapidly changing, and is both theoretical (based on evidence and falsifiability) and hypothetical (extrapolating from what’s supported by evidence to posit possible further paths and explanations not yet supported by evidence).

Early definitions of empathy were grounded in the body and feeling. The body – embodiment – remains central in current definitions of empathy in cognitive sciences. There is agreement cross the scientific literature on three basic attributes of empathy: First, you must to some degree be feeling what the other person is feeling; second, you must to some degree be able to visualize or imagine yourself in the other person’s situation; and, third, you need to know that you are not in fact the other person (Lamm et al 2007, 42). We relate to and copy each other on a number of levels, while remaining aware that we are not the other and that we have potential for action different from the other (Decety and Sommerville, 527).

It is crucial to note that there is no moral or ethical valence to cognitive science’s basic view of empathy, which flies in the face of the general understanding of empathy as necessarily involving compassion. Rather, social neuroscientists ask two basic, very different questions about empathy: “How can we know what another person is thinking and feeling?” and “What leads us to respond with sensitivity to the suffering of another?” (Batson 3). Some evolutionary neuroscientists hypothesize that the former – “What is he thinking? What is he getting ready to do?” – is the source of empathy – a value-neutral evolutionary survival mechanism that helps us know whether to fight, flee, feed, or fornicate – the four Fs of evolution. (It might be helpful to think of Iago as having an overabundance of the former, “mind-reading” kind empathy and Desdemona having too much of the latter, “respond to another’s suffering” kind.) “Empathy” can refer to at least eight different things: 1) knowing someone’s internal state, 2) matching someone’s posture or neural responses (neural simulation falls in here), 3) feeling as someone else feels, 4) projecting yourself into someone else’s situation, 5) imagining how someone else is thinking and feeling, 6) imagining how you would think and feel in the other person’s place, 7) feeling distress at witnessing someone else’s suffering, and 8) feeling for someone who is suffering (Batson 4-8). In short, empathy is a generic term applied to a whole array of neural, cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic responses that are evoked in us by an other, who can be real or, crucially for those of us in theatre, imagined. We can use the same word, “empathy,” in a multitude of situations when teaching or doing theatre, but we can in fact be talking about very different things at any given moment. The science provides us with great opportunity for clarity – and thereby greater efficacy in identifying the problem we’re working on and communicating with students, actors, and designers, among others.

Neuroscience and cognitive linguistics, which treats language as a manifestation of our bodies, have been exploring connections between neural mirroring – a component of empathy – and language. The science provides evidence for what teachers and theatre practitioners have felt intuitively is true – we are whole/holistic beings: body cannot be separated from environment cannot be separated from feeling cannot be separated from thought cannot be separated from language. Areas in our brains close to and including Broca’s area are crucial to language production and to language comprehension and to perceiving the intention of physical actions such as grasping and manipulation (Fadiga et al). Thus, language may have evolved from a neurally grounded, pre-linguistic, even pre-conscious perception of gestural intention and performance – an understanding of action based in neural mirroring systems. There are studies that “have shown that the sensorimotor cortices are crucial to semantic understanding of bodily action terms and sentences” (Kaag 186, italics mine), i.e., bodily and linguistic understanding are neurally linked. One study shows that some brain areas initially assumed to be solely about spatial and proprioceptive orientation are also activated by language: “The neural activation detected when one picks up a box is largely isomorphic with the activation stimulated by the command to ‘pick up that box’” (186). There are material links among neural mirroring, empathy, language, and action anticipation. Everything ultimately comes from the body.

Unsurprisingly, imitation is an important part of this mix; we have “a minimal neural architecture for imitation” that encompasses three brain regions: one that allows us to see the action, a second that lets us grasp the immediate physical embodiment of the action, and a third that lets us anticipate the action’s intent (i.e., “mind-reading”). Further, additional data suggest also that empathy occurs via the minimal neural architecture for imitation interacting with regions of the brain relevant to emotion. All in all, “we come to understand others via imitation, and imitation shares functional mechanisms with language and empathy” (Iacoboni “Understanding” 2007, ms 1, italics mine).

In sum, “our empathic resonance is grounded in the experience of our acting body and the emotions associated with specific movements” (Iacoboni “Understanding” 2007, ms 33, italics mine).

The Perception-Action Model of empathy holds that perception of another’s state automatically triggers bodily responses in us that operate at multiple levels, some of them below the level of any kind of awareness (Preston and de Waal 2002). This is a kind of bottom-up processing, e.g., as in our automatic tendency to mimic others’ expressions. There is also top-down processing, e.g., as in the conscious imaginative placing of oneself into the feeling and thinking of another. The likelihood is that both rely to some degree on “neural mechanisms that are involved when the self experiences emotion” (Lamm et al 2007, 42). Also, we can respond with the other person, or to the other person; both of these depend on imitation, which precedes language and prosocial response (Lamm). In short, empathy doesn’t require conscious awareness because we are organically “built” for it; however, empathy and empathic capacity can be reinforced or suppressed by cognitive capacities, and by our experiences. This is where applying the research to reinforce empathy in all of its various meanings – through how we structure exercises, rehearsals, and our relationships with each other – can strengthen our work with students in theatre and drama.

What I find hopeful in the research is that it materially explains how our bodies (of which our brain is a part!) act directly upon each other in all kinds of ways that are crucial to helping us not just to understand, but to know in a deep way, the experience of the other as a factor in taking action. But it is important to be specific about what we mean when we talk about projecting ourselves into or appropriating another’s situation; or projecting ourselves into a character as though she were a “real person,” rather than as a process – a series of choices – arising out of our biases, experiences, and imaginations in encountering a text or a situation; or believing that, because we’re feeling something we label “empathetic,” we’re doing something “authentic.” The multi-faceted understanding of empathy provided by the science can help us here. We have no control over the neural level of response, but I find it provocative to know that, when we are together, my brain is lighting up similarly to yours and my muscles are automatically mimicking yours, and that we are “wired for empathy,” insofar as our body-brains mirror each other in terms of perception, and thereby prepare us for action. Imagination is fundamentally about the organism using all of its faculties to respond to different situations in order to negotiate its environment as well as possible; Stanislavsky intuited this when he posited his “if” and described the need for the character to deal with given circumstances. Since imagination – and empathies of various kinds – happen both consciously and also extensively below the level of consciousness, it might be possible to see teaching and making theatre as helping the viewers’ bodies imagine themselves inside the stories we tell. (Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is a prime example of this.) As artists we do have some control over the physical and conscious aspects of empathy. We can use the muscle-by-muscle way in which empathy or fellow-feeling is evoked (see particularly the studies of Paul Ekman), and find psychophysical embodiments that evoke the feelings that we want in the audience and attend carefully to the context in which the work is done. Even though value-neutral, certain mirroring and imitation mechanisms that evolved as strategies for survival were at their core connective; we had to “get inside” the other in order to survive. And this is a necessary first step to compassionate identification with the other, whether she be a fellow human being or a completely imaginary Desdemona. Theatre and performance are high order ways of doing this.


Batson, C. Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Jean Decety and William Ickes, eds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011, 3-15.

Decety, Jean and Philip L. Jackson (2006). “A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on Empathy.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15:2, 54-58.

Decety, Jean and Jessica A. Sommerville (2003). “Shared representations between self and other: a social cognitive neuroscience view.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences December, 7:12, 527-533.

Ekman, Paul (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York: Times Books.

Fadiga, Luciano, Laila Craighero, Maddalena Fabbri Destro, Livio Finos, Nathalie Cotilon-Williams, Andrew T. Smith, and Umberto Castiello (2006). “Language in Shadow”. Social Neuroscience 1 (2): 77–89

Gallese, Vittorio (2001). “The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8:5-7, 33-50.

Gibson, Lydialyle (2006). “Mirrored Emotion – Interview with Jean Decety.” University of Chicago Magazine, April, 98:4.

Iacoboni, Marco (2006). “Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence: The Problem With Super Mirrors.” The Edge.

Iacoboni, Marco (2007). “Neuroscience Will Change Society.” The Edge.

Iacoboni, Marco (2007). “Understanding Others: Imitation, Language, and Empathy.” Perspectives on Imitation: From Mirror Neurons to Memes, Vol. I: Mechanisms of Imitation and Imitation in Animals. Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, in press.

Kaag, John. “The neurological dynamics of the imagination.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Vol. 8, Issue 2, 183-204, 2009.

Lamm, Claus, C. Daniel Batson, and Jean Decety. “The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-taking and Cognitive Appraisal.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19:1, 42-58.

Olson, Gary (20 May 2007). “Hard-Wired for Moral Politics: Neuroscience and Empathy.” ZNet/Activism. (19 June 2007).

Preston, Stephanie D., Antoine Bechara, Thomas J. Grabowski, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio R. Damasio (2002). “A Perception-Action Model of Cognitive Empathy? A PET Investigation of Imagining Your Own Experience and Someone Else’s.” University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics; Department of Neurology, Iowa City, IA.

Preston, Stephanie D. and Frans B. M. de Waal (2001). “Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences February, 25:1, 1-20.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2006). “The Neurology of Self-awareness.” Edge 201, January 22.

Singer, Tania and Chris Frith (2005). “The painful side of empathy.” Nature Neuroscience July, 8:7, 845-846.

Biography of Rhonda Blair