The Power of Empathy

The Hopi Indian's have an exquisite expression "What all humankind share is our aloneness and it is the gift of the Gods to grant us the ability to share with one another to overcome that aloneness."

For secular and acting purposes we will call this natures' gift of empathy and the single most important and powerful tool for actors: without it our ability to understand and feel for one another and our humanity will be lost. Our ability to share it with others will be diminished and we lose the privilege to call ourselves artists. We would not know how to love, share, hate or steal for that matter. We would not know when we are welcome or under threat. 

We possess what Neuroscientists call "mirroring neurons" that receive information through the visual cortex and trigger chemical interactions we call emotions/feelings. We process all data through a combination of thoughts, actions, behaviors and rhythm. These 4 elements are the chemical eyes and ears that trigger empathetic responses. I addressed these elements in the previous 4 blogs.

Let's examine more closely this ill-conceived concept called "relating to the character" and how it diminishes truthful acting in the 21st century.  How many actors have said, "Oh, I relate to that," or "I can't relate to that,” or even worse "I have to find an imaginary circumstance in order to relate to that."

Let's look at the myth of the above statements based on your own experience. You start to share something with somebody, and they say, "Oh, I can relate." The moment somebody says, "Oh, I can relate" to you it's their attempt to turn the conversation around onto themselves. Nobody who says, "I can relate" and continues to listen to you. They turn the discussion around onto themselves. Empathy on the other hand (nature's gift) produces a different response. When somebody empathizes with you, what do they do? They may touch your knee, your shoulder or stroke your cheek depending on what level of intimacy you are on. They may even emit a little sound like, "Mmm," because they experienced you so deeply when you said what you said.  No need for words. Very soon in the “sharing”, their face will mirror your face. That's empathy.

When you watch a good movie, a good TV show or read a book, you'll find that you are not relating. You are empathizing. You don't have to put the TV on pause to take a moment to find a way to “relate to it” or do "a substitution". It is empathy, and our capacity to empathize.  Art would not exist without it and we could not survive as a species without it. There are those who do not have the power of empathy. We call these people narcissists or worse sociopaths and psychopaths. They know how to simulate it at best. Most of us have the power of empathy. It's built into our DNA. We have the need to share our stories with others and hear others tell us their stories.

It goes back thousands and thousands of years. If you read the Bible, The Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur'an, Ovid, Homer, and Virgil, you will find they tell the same stories.  They were all written down roughly between 1500 BCE and 100 AD. Meaning before that, they were part of an oral tradition. We are still telling the same stories today. As Leonard Cohen would say "new skin for the old ceremony". We still gather around the fire. It's an electronic fire now, but we still gather around the fire and tell each other our stories, and nothing has changed in thousands of years. The stories we tell, the behavior’s we engage in, the thoughts we have, and the way in which we express them is ancient. These stories are our birthright and we have been compelled to tell them throughout history.

There's any number of 19th and 20th century concepts that utilize a number of different techniques. Actors are taught such techniques as emotion memory, sense memory, active listening, analogous human experience, and substitutions are amongst the most popular. However, are they even necessary given our "nature given gift" of empathy? The x-ray ability of HD, Retina display and what lies beyond makes them irrelevant. Will any time lag between the impulse and the action be nearly as effective or efficient as empathy? In the end do you construct truth, or find truth? It seems to me the truth is something you discover not invent. In the "real world" an invented truth is called a lie. Truth is not a construction - it is a discovery. Truth is discovered, bullshit is invented.

There are a few books that I suggest you read that helped me define my approach to the training of actors:

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni
I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

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