The Empathy Engine

A friend of mine, who works primarily in theatre, recently derisively described his experience as a movie audience member as “watching people have feelings.” He was speaking from a certain frustration and incomprehension. Theatre actors DO things. Film actors just FEEL things.

This idea has stuck with me. Is it true? And if so, why?

This also gets at the overarching question of why people should care about the content of the movies they watch; what characters, relationships, archetypes, feelings, messages, lessons are contained therein. If it’s just entertainment, and if the makers of the movies are just giving the consumer what they want, what’s the point of trying to analyze or decipher any of it?

In other words, so what? Who cares?

So what if MacroCinema makers want to merely entertain, to blow things up, stage hostage situations, heists, car chases and alien invasions? Who am I to ask for more? Who cares what’s in the movies? Don’t we get what we deserve anyway, what we will pay for as consumers in the free market? The aliens invade because the ticket-buying public wants alien invasions. All is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds.

Fair enough. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me, or care. I don’t expect things to change. I see value (for myself at least) in articulating a view of MacroCinema from a certain perspective – and thinking through the implications of that view.

If MacroCinema is (gradually) on its way out, if its influence steadily wanes, then it seems like a perfect time to take its measure. And besides, I believe it holds significance as the dominant form of cultural communication in the 20th Century, a dream portrait of our time, as well as a time capsule for the distant future…

Why is MacroCinema unique, important? Why should we care what it says about us, how it influences us?

One possible answer to this question has to do with the workings of the human brain itself. I am no expert on the concept of the Mirror Neuron, but I find it fascinating: the basic idea is that we have, hardwired into our brain, specific neurons whose job it is to mirror the feelings of those around us. If we see someone happy, we feel happy. If we see someone angry, we start to feel angry.

The hypothesis, as I understand it, is that this capability to literally share feelings with those around us was a key part of our evolution as a social species. In order to work together, whether hunting, gathering, celebrating, mourning, etc., we have to be on the same page – we have to be aware of what the people around us are feeling, and we have to be on some level willing to share those feelings, or we will simply leave – we’re only part of the tribe if we feel the same feelings as the rest of the tribe, at least some of the time.

In terms of evolution, the homo sapiens who stuck together did a better job of surviving and thriving and reproducing than those with fewer mirror neurons, who were less able to track the feelings of the group.

I believe that in the 20th Century, the motion picture acted in an unprecedented way on the mirror neurons of human beings. For the first time we were able to see emotional reactions of people besides close friends and family members up close, enacted by professionals who were (and are) brilliant at emoting – screen actors. It’s kind of a cliché that the movie stars of the silent era were overacters – they gave big, broad, exaggerated performances that seem comical in retrospect (see: Sunset Boulevard) but this makes sense because in a way they were teaching people the vocabulary of sharing emotions with strangers.

This desire and need to have your mirror neurons activated by professionals was not brand new – it’s also the basis of theater – but as my friend said, actors on a stage are still relatively small and far away – they need to do things, to create a gestalt of an entire scenario with multiple characters in relationship, in action – whereas film represents the first time that the close-up became available as a tool – where we could have one giant face to mirror, one big feeling at a time to feel.

In short, cinema is capable of activating mass empathy, where everyone in the room (or with television, across the country, each in their individual living rooms) is feeling the same thing at the same time, empathizing with a single charismatic actor portraying a strong feeling. Rage, Sorrow, Joy, Fear – the movies were and are an unprecedented conduit for this kind of communication and influence. That’s what makes the moving image such an effective tool of propaganda – far moreso than still images, words, or audio alone.

Movies and tv shows are engines of empathy – which, as I have said before, is not ideologically neutral at all. Because of mirror neurons, showing someone a movie is essentially asking them to feel something – and what they’re being asked to feel is dictated by the content of the film.

Of course there can still be room for ambiguity and interpretation in the images presented, but emotional impact is the content. The mirror neurons are there in your brain, patiently waiting for input.

Empathy is a biological fact of the social human animal, but it is also a faculty like a muscle or an organ – it can be exercised, it can grow stronger or atrophy over time.

My wife is a therapist, and she cannot watch violent or disturbing movies or television – she feels it too much, her sense of empathy is so carefully tuned to what she sees and hears.

When we see an act of violence in a film, when one person kills another, the cinematic perspective makes all the difference. If we see events from the perspective of the victim, if we are encouraged to empathize with them and feel the real tragedy of what is happening to them, we will be uncomfortable – and we will probably stop watching, if those feelings grow intense enough.

But if we see the same event from the perspective of the killer, our mirror neurons are looking at them for social cues about how to feel. If we identify with the person doing the killing, and if their face tells us that they feel great about it – or perhaps worse, if they feel nothing whatsoever – we are taking our emotional cues from them, our empathy is being shaped by their feelings.

I think this is more true in movies and television than video games, even. A first person shooter can contain an appalling amount of graphic violence, but in a way the damage done to the sense of empathy by the close up of the killer’s pleased or stoic reaction to the violence has a larger impact on the brain than the carnage itself.

As social animals, we have evolved for millions of years to decide who is part of our tribe, and to do our best to mirror their emotional state, for the sake of survival.

When our cinema tells us that the charismatic sociopath protagonist of our favorite show is part of our tribe, we will care about them, and our brains will be literally shaped by what we see. We will train ourselves to respond how they respond when we encounter pain, suffering, struggle – whether or not this leads us to commit violence is beside the point.

In movie after movie and show after show, we are encouraged not to care about our protagonist’s victims, to feel contempt for their enemies, or to feel only steely resolve to do what needs to be done so that our friends and families survive. If individuals or masses of people are treated in effect as inhuman, as mere extras (whether computer generated or human) – be they robots or aliens or orcs or computer algorithms or whatever – our brains will continue to learn that strangers and masses of people far away are fictional constructs to be bested, dominated, exterminated.

We won’t necessarily stop caring all together – but if the cumulative effect of years and years of death and destruction in our Macrocinema even incrementally decreases our ability to feel empathy for others in the real world, is it worth it?

Cinema is an immensely powerful empathy engine. It can lead us to care deeply about people and perspectives long ago, or in a galaxy far, far away. Or, it can subtly persuade us to care less and less about the lives and feelings of people who we disagree with, who aren’t like us, who compete with us for the things we want, or who are simply far enough away that we can’t quite imagine them in full detail, depth and complexity.

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