Film and Empathy

I realized why I like good dramas so much. I like it because it reveals so much about how other people's minds work. In short, I think I might have subconsciously been using film as research for the one topic that has been an area I am weak in - empathy.

I grew up in a home where we didn't really talk about feelings and what other's might be thinking at a given moment has always been a bit of a mystery. There were rules, and things that you didn't do, and tasks that needed to be done. The world was very simple. There was no need to complicate it. My father''s father was a stern distant man so it's clear to me why my dad was the way he was.

Some of my friends can instantly and intuitively sense and feel what others feel. I struggle with moving beyond cognition. It's more of a rule based system for me. I have to study others almost scientifically to really understand what is going on. When I first meet someone I will ask them dozens of times what they mean by various facial expressions, tone of voice, muscular tenseness or word usage. Once I slowly develop some understanding, I begin to test out this intuition and see how accurate I am. You look sad, is something wrong (they might respond no, I have a runny nose or they might in fact be really sad). In all it takes a lot of observation and questioning before I can fine tune my understanding of another person (this is also why I like MBTI - it gives me a bit of a cheat sheet and framework for processing this) though thankfully because of television these subtle cues are widespread among everyone I encounter. TV has popularized specific expressions that we often tend to emulate. In a lot of ways I think I am doing the same thing everyone else is, I am just having to go through it step by step whereas it just clicks with other people. I generally try to have this systematic approach to things (ie my interests in ecology and evolution) though so this is just an odd extension of that.

It sounds a little autistic, I know. I read a book about Aspergers a while back and it talked about how we all build "simulations" for those in our life. This really helped a lot when I went through my break up. I needed to tweak my simulation. In a lot of ways we find comfort not in the other person (unless they are physically doing things for us) but in the mental construct we have created. We smile when they are not there because we know if we were to do a certain action it would make them smile too (for instance if I were to text someone a silly memory we shared - sending the text isn't even necessary - it's the thought that brings us happiness - it's the same with friends and relatives who have passed away - there presence lives on).

As an aside, breakups highlight when we don't understand the other person. We put in things but the response we get out is totally unexpected. We must tweak our simulation. The same actions no longer bring the same response.

Anyway, Piaget talked about "theory of mind" and this is exactly what is going on. I guess you could say given my family's emotional reticence I was at a bit of a disadvantage. Add in the fact that I lived in a rural area, with few neighbors my age (also consider most of my early interactions were in super positive places [sometime to the point of being artificially polite/deferential] like church and family gatherings) and the fact that I grew up essentially as an only child and it is not difficult to see why I might be lacking in these faculties.

This is where drama comes in - at least good film -- honest film. It hits at the glittering kaleidoscopic of human emotion. Masters have a way of even highlighting the nuance in moments we think we have experienced and know well. They can unpackage the complexity and reveal it through editing, camera work, a musical score and thoughtful dialogue. They literally focus their lens on this subtlety.

So anyway, what I can do from here? Well tonight I was just watching a new TV series (House of Cards) and realized I knew exactly how one of the characters felt but it was totally intellectual. I had the idea of pausing the film and trying to soak up the emotion of the scene. I don't know if this is silly or not, but I am going to try it from now on when it's clear I could mentally put myself in that person's shoes but fail to have the emotional resonance. I hope it will help me start being able to feel what others feel so that I can actually "be" with them when we talk.

Here are two articles on the subject:
An Exercise in Empathy
Empathy and Fiction