Why stories are the ultimate empathy machines, humanity’s uniting handiwork

There was a moment on Memorial Day when I felt like I was sitting by a river in Southern Texas. One man and two boys nearby me. We were fishing, but mostly talking.

I was watching the film The Last Picture Show. There were no fish in the river, according to Sam the Lion (played by Ben Johnson). But it was just as well; peaceful. The water moved along steadily and the grass swayed in the breeze as Sam talked, telling us stories about himself as a young man. The two young men with him listened, one understanding, the other mentally handicapped, understanding the bond we shared.

I sat with the boys in Sam’s audience, listening, if just for a moment.

Sam talked about a woman he loved as a 22-year-old, how he thought about her often and knew that he’d go back to being the same foolish young man within five minutes of her showing up. The sun peaked out of the clouds behind him. But there’s nothing foolish about loving a woman like that, he said. What was foolish was getting old. My eyes welled up with tears; I turned away to hide them from Sam.

I could have sat by that river just outside of their small town all day. By the end of the film, day became night. Memorial Day was nearly over. It felt like I had spent years with the characters, in the best way possible.

And that’s what movies do.

Hell, that’s what stories do. They insert you into the worlds of other people, worlds you never knew existed. They help you understand those worlds and, in that understanding, they help you better understand yourself and your world.

**

In Roger Ebert’s Walk of Fame remarks, he said that movies were the “most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”

“When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.”

I’d agree with Ebert, the master critic, only I’d add my belief that this effect goes beyond movies.

Story, in all forms, is the great empathy machine, humanity’s uniting piece of handiwork.

**

Movies, books, songs, dances, on-stage storytelling, stand-up comedy, one-to-one storytelling among friends or lovers, even well-done commercials all feel like the shortest, easiest way to understand someone who isn’t you, someone with whom you may disagree entirely.

And the goal of story is never to get someone to agree. It’s to get them to understand, to empathize, to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I want to understand people who aren’t me, people whom I may otherwise judge harshly watching their lives from my worldview. The best stories don’t have flawless characters—I can’t think of a beloved story that has saintly characters—the best stories have real people whom you watch struggle and lose and fail and fuckup, whom you watch do bad things that makes you question their moral judgement, whom you watch struggle with those decisions. You root for them, wanting them to succeed despite their own actions, which now feel strangely like your own. That sick feeling comes up; were they right? Would I be right if I were there?

These people in stories we consume often remind us of our families, of ourselves, of people we see on the streets. But just as often, I’ve found myself relating to completely foreign-seeming people in stories set in places far away or times long ago. By the end of a well-told story, they feel like family.

And by the end of the story, I likely don’t understand these people entirely. I don’t understand my family completely either, nor my friends. But I’ve seen their experience—I’ve been part of it and now understand pieces of their lives.

That’s all I can ask for from a story; the essence of life. That’s all.

But then there are some stories where I feel as though I’ve understood a different life completely. For example, when I read Karl Ove Knausgård’s five-book series, My Struggle, I often forgot that I was myself. I’d become Knausgård, a Norwegian writer looking back on his life. I’d be sitting at home, on a train, or at work reading, then suddenly I’d be cooking or writing or pushing my children around in a stroller, wondering when I had gone from being a young, self-hate-filled artist to a dad trying to hold my patience while losing my masculinity and writing time, all while gaining a love within me I didn’t know possible, a love I questioned deserving, a love I picked apart in my own head, a fragile love that lasts until it doesn’t. Then my book came out and my uncle sued me and I’d worry about what people might think of me as I chopped vegetables or wrote more books or buried my father or attempted suicide.

Then, I’d shut the book. Suddenly I was me again, only I had a piece of Knausgård in me, his way of understanding and seeing and feeling the world.

It was a remarkable feeling, to become someone else only to once again become a changed version of myself.

At their best, that’s what stories do.

**

There’s science to back up this remarkable feeling, a user’s guide to how the empathy machine operates.

Lisa Cron, an author and story coach, wrote the book Wired for Story on the science behind why humans love stories.

Cron broke the book into chapters on how writers can use science to write their own stories that would hook people, to make them feel like they were becoming someone else, even if just for a single story. The book is brilliant and worth your time, especially if you write.

Since reading Wired for Story, I’ve watched how emotion moves stories. I’ve seen that stories without emotion are dry and pallid, almost as though the author were marching a stick figure around while pretending it was a real person. I imagined these writers as puppet masters, saying: Look at this stick figure combat these obstacles they face—cool trick, huh? These stories feel like lies. I always feel like an asshole after watching or reading them, like my time had just been stolen.

There’s a difference with a skilled storyteller; they’re not puppet masters but craftsmen. Stories relying on emotion, even with implausible plots, often feel as real as my own life. I become an emotionally unstable meth cook while watching Breaking Bad, I become a widow who died next to her daughter and husband while watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue, I become a young boy visiting his great uncle’s farm while listening to the Drive-By Truckers.

And though this is all just in my imagination, it’s measurable.

A study by Jeffrey M. Zacks and Nicole Speer—Cron cited it in her book—put participants into an fMRI machine while they read a short story. These machines measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, allowing the researchers to see what areas of the brain activate during the story.

When participants read about an activity, the same parts of their brain lit up as when they were actually performing that activity.  Thus, hearing a story isn’t a passive exercise, Speer said, but an active, mental simulation. The reader, hearer, or watcher is constantly running through what they’d do in that same situation.

“Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences,” Speer said. “These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.”

If you don’t believe me, watch this 15-minute short film called Fauve by Jeremy Comte. I bet that within five minutes, your heart beat faster and you’ll want to reach out your arms as you rack your brain thinking of a way out of an awful situation.

Fauve is true nightmare fuel, but it’s also asking good questions: What do you think it’s like to be these two boys? What would you do? How do you think they felt?

It’s a sickening story by Comte, clearly a great storyteller who knows how to put you there with his characters.

**

I’ve long searched for a purpose in my life. Most of my last year as a writer, working by myself after years as someone else’s employee, has been spent mulling my own purpose. What’s the greater purpose to my work? Is there one?

I feel that I’ve found my purpose in telling stories, in becoming a craftsman of empathy machines.

I’m not a perfect storyteller and I hope never to be perfect—I don’t think it’s possible, but I can’t imagine the boredom of perfection. As I said earlier, I have yet to hear a good story with a perfect character. But I believe that stories have the power to change the world, or at least change the way its hearers feel about the world.

Most stories change things on that small a scale—now I know more about what it’s like to be a person like this, so I’ll treat them with more kindness next time I see them. But, as small as that change may be, I believe that it’s a change the world desperately needs. We could all stand thinking and feeling what it’s like to be someone else.

And then there are our own stories. Think of the stories you tell yourself, about your life and your nation and the people whom you know. Is there anything that affects your life more on a day-to-day basis than these stories? In my life, I don’t see anything with a greater effect. Yet, most of us allow our stories to run, no matter how unrealistic or out of wack with reality.

These stories—about ourselves, about others—matter greatly. We must be creative in how we think of other people and what their lives might be like, more creative in how we envision our own lives. We must use the empathy machine.

Perhaps, if we used the empathy machine more often, we could have a more united world. The world is greatly polarized, with many people taking an us-versus-them stance seemingly as their philosophical backbone. This is not new, nor is it entirely the fault of President Donald Trump—although if there were a polarization machine, he’d be a master craftsman—or any other political party (though none of them help in the slightest). 

Polarization has been around forever in humanity and will likely continue to exist until the end. After all, we’re all different—we all have our own goals and desires and some of these goals and desires are limited in supply, which causes conflict. We were also all raised differently, every one of us. We all have different life experiences. None of us are a replica of another. Even identical twins have separate lives.

And yet we’re genetically 99.9 percent the same, every last one of us humans. The differences in our DNA are split hairs. We all walk the same planet. We all confront similar challenges.

I find beauty and comfort in knowing how similar we are. We realize our similarity in some small way with every story we read, watch, or hear.

**

“The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people,” Ebert said.

I’ll add to the master once again: Great stories unite us, too. They shine a light on existences we hadn’t considered.

Each story is a chance to see life from the eyes of a fellow human, to think about how we might react in their situation, to wonder what they might do next, to see how it turns out for them, to root for someone other than ourselves. Great stories allow us to see our own morals, our own flaws, our own characteristics reflected back at us. We look at our values and wonder how we could have done in the situation we just experienced through story. Do we believe the right things? Are our values moral? These questions help us refine our vision of the world, help us become self-aware and reflective. They’re the ends of the empathy machine.

Which brings me to what, exactly, the empathy machine looks like.

I see empathy machines as looking like an engine, with a pull-cord startup, elegant internal design, and a weight that makes them hard to carry. I see empathy machines as covered in dimmed lights, all waiting to illuminate the second the cord is pulled. It runs not on gas, but on openness to feeling, on empathy itself. And when you pull its cord, these magnificent lights shine, illuminating the whole world. For as long as the empathy machine runs, we see through the eyes and hearts and minds of other people. It’s glorious and ugly and scary and beautiful. Sometimes it’s painful or boring. Always, it’s insightful.

And then, before long, the machine turns off, the lights dim, and we’re left to our lives, slightly changed but always ourselves.

Hi. I hope you enjoyed this bit of writing. I’ll be here every Wednesday and Sunday, rain or shine, story or no story. Share this if you’re so moved. Email me at halconick@gmail.com, if you want to email me. I’ll take compliments or insults; either bolsters my massive writer’s ego. Anywho, have a good day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s