How Art Evokes Empathy and Emotion

Empathy, Emotions, Expression and Art.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
-James Bandwin

Since we started with a beautiful and emotional quote from one of the most celebrated writers, let’s now delve into a factual discussion which throws more light on our title. The idea that art is somehow connected to emotions is not new.  Similarly, the idea that artists are more empathetic, emotional, and obviously expressive is one that goes back centuries. Aristotle talked about ‘catharsis’ meaning the emotional rise and the purging of emotions that one has when one relates to a character while exposing themselves to art. The term ‘empathy’ was born out of the efforts of linguists to translate a German word called “einfuhlung”. It meant to add feelings to something. Now it means absorbing feelings from something.

When you look at a piece of art, be it painting, sculpture, poetry, drama or films, you are expected to feel something, aren’t you? And, it can’t be denied that you do feel something- at least anger about not feeling or understanding it. For starters, it does cause an emotional upsurge, intentional of the artist or not. But, artists do try to express and make us feel. They fill their art with emotions and thought and we are expected to replicate that, and in most cases we do. Isn’t that empathising? Aren’t we empathising with the author, painter or filmmaker at that very moment?

The short answer is Yes. The long answer is too long. But as much as it may hurt both of us, you will get the answer you deserve. Novelist Barabara Kingslove says, “Literature sucks you into another psyche”. That’s empathy. But how do we take her word for it? It’s her job to convince her that we felt something when we read her novel.

Based on a Cambridge study which talks of preferences of people towards the kind of art they enjoy, people can be divided into 5 categories. The people who, according to the study, are considered more empathetic do not prefer horror and violent genres because of their increased level of empathy. The same people may enjoy heartbreak and pain in different genres which horror-loving people may find difficult to take. It doesn’t put people in these fixed boxes in terms of the dimensions but it does show a connection of art with emotions and empathy.

Artists do have emotions and are empathetic, and empathetic people like art is a general idea. But does art nurture empathy? Research by psychologists Kidd and Castano says that it does. They got some people to read different kinds of literature and others do not, and tested them via The Theory of Mind. The readers were more empathetic than the non-readers in that experiment. Although it was short lived, empathy did increase.

art and empathy by Untwine Me

Stories connect us with people who are like us, but also with people from the past and people from different cultures. That’s only because we connect emotionally. Art evokes wonder and curiosity. ‘Wonder’ also happens to be one of the 9 rasas  (emotions) in the Indian Natyashastra- an ancient handbook for dramatists.

The capacity to feel what others are feeling, replicating those emotions and even learning from that is a part of the design of the human psyche meant for survival. That also reflects in our experience of art. It sometimes may be limited to only characters or people who we may consider “us” but we can be made to feel “us” with people who are different from us through art.

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”
-Neil Gaiman


Written by Prachi Rautela

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