Empathy – and one of its possible roles in Creativity.

…okay, so this [is] was part of my push towards the final submissions for my Masters Degree.

I’m I was hoping to show this through the presentation of a large image that includes much of, and shows the holistic leanings of, the research I’ve been doing; and outlines its subsequent impact on my design/education practice.

The image below is a detail from that holistic visual.

In particular, this fragment is trying to resolve some of the research into the links between empathy (§) and creativity (including my interest in reading>empathy>creativity) for those of us (creatives) who ground their work in a shared experience with the/an audience.

i.e. Animators, Illustrators, Games Designers, Character Designers, Environment and Concept Artists, Film and Theatre-Makers and other entertainment Media creatives.

But before we get into it, some expansion/elucidation of terminology before looking at the theories below, most importantly:

What do I mean by Empathy?


§ – em·pa·thy


The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
– Google Definition (verbatim, OED Online Definition)


Well, it’s certainly not the common usage form as a synonym for sympathy noted above – that is NOT what I’m suggesting; that is too narrow a definition, and eliminates a broader “understanding of something other, something not immediately of the self” (that might jar with our own sensibilities and feelings) measured against our own experience.

Instead I’m looking more at the broader concept of our ability to see through the eyes of another, to develop a wider range of perspectives based on those of others as part of, and to inform our “personal micro-culture“, via shared (or a notion of shared) experience or recognition of a shared goal or cognitive response.

The Evolutionary (benefit) Empathy currently being debated by neuroscientists and psychologists such as Iacoboni, Hayes, Gallese, and Hickock

“Current theories of empathy suggest a multilayer functional structure, with a core layer of automatic responses to reproduce the affective states of others. Mirror neurons are likely cellular candidates for the core layer of empathy.”

– Marco Iacoboni.

…and a couple of others.

Creativity – the repeatable practice of developing original ideas, esp 1. ideas that have value to others (after K. Robinson). esp 2. (in this case) in the production of an artistic/design work.

Practice/Craft – The acts undertaken and stratagems employed by a person to develop their skill further in a particular craft or art or creative role (no matter their current level of skill).

Vicarious – …as obtained or understood and experienced second-hand through sympathetic participation in another’s experiences.


Detail of Masters Visualisation 001

The sketch graphic on the left of the detail shows my proposed (WIP) taxonomy for an act of creative development in this field, here overlaid and augmented with some of the pertinent existing and related theories and theorists I have been looking at…

Starting at the base with the cyclic and somewhat fluxing taxons of:

  • A – Call to Action/Will to Opportunity (Which may include B, and C as part of its set)

Examples could be:

  1. Seeing a beautiful landscape you think would make a beautiful painting or illustration
  2. A discussion with a friend of an idea about Japanese robots fighting dinosaurs
  3. The design flaw in an existing item or product
  4. A college/university/client brief
  • B – Experience, both vicarious & dasein (Which may include A, itself, C and D as part of its set)

Examples could be:

  1. Experiencing first hand a beautiful landscape you think would make a beautiful painting or illustration while walking
  2. The act of reading a book on Dinosaurs, or having been on a visit to a car factory which uses industrial robotic technology
  3. Watching someone struggle (or perhaps struggling yourself) with design flawed item or product whilst out in the street
  • C – The Observed World Beyond the Self (Which may be seen as part of B’s set)

Examples could be:

  1. Sitting in cafes with your sketchbook.
  2. Traveling with a notebook or blogging device/camera or sketchbook
  3. People watching in the supermarket
  4. Just paying attention and being interested in “things” …a little knowledge (reading again maybe? If not direct, dasein observation) of the geography, politics, cultural diversity and basic relationships between your fellow humans and other phenomena on and around the planet we all live on, though perhaps not directly in your sphere of immediate interest.


  • D – The Will to Experience/Fear of Failure dichotomy (which seems to be the problematic gateway through which the other taxons are accessed and eventually engaged)

Examples could be:

  1. Sitting in cafes with your sketchbook/versus/not bringing a sketchbook because “What if someone sees or asks about what I’m doing?”.
  2. “What have I to lose” versus “I don’t want to do it, I’ll look like an idiot…”
  3. “No time like the present” versus “I’ll do it later…”
  4. “I set aside a bit of time just so I could do it” versus “I was going to do it, but something came up…”
  5. “Actually it didn’t take much time at all once I got started” versus “I don’t have time…”
  6. …and in the contemporary parlance – “CBA”§ which may translate as “I’m worried what others might think if I fail”.

These four taxons exist at the root of any creative enterprise and can be the generative catalyst for creativity or conversely, with part D, the reason why nothing gets done or even started.

The Will to Creative Opportunity

Once Called to Action, the next phase begins: This includes a tri-fold relationship between one of the taxons mentioned above, i.e. Experience, and two others, Empathy and Imagination.

Experience, Empathy & Imagination

Experience, whether actual/desein or vicarious can provide Empathy, by this I mean it can supply the person who is experiencing a new situation, culture, point of view or perspective with the experience of “otherness”, or something not purely derived, or centred about the pre-existing “self”. Even vicarious experiences, such as those reading a book of fiction in which you get to ride as a passenger in the thoughts of another in turn become pseudo-Experiences.

These experiences of “otherness”, added to our own dasein experiences, when mixed, re-mixed and in combination, subtraction, through projection or extrapolation etc forms the basis of Imagination.

For example A:

1 – I go to the Grand canyon (Will to Experience) and feel fear when standing on the edge of the visitor centre’s overlook platform. (dasein Experience)

2 – I read a book about Russian Cosmonauts and their experiences in the early days of Space travel (vicarius Experience).

3 – I project my dasein experiences onto the vicarious experiences I have read of the Russian Cosmonaut, wondering how it must feel to stand on a space ships exterior, when on a space walk (Empathy, and possible Call to Action).

4 – I create a narrative (Vygotsky’s pivot) and a character of an astronaut who suffers from vertigo and must overcome his fear to save the mission (Imagination).

For example B:

1 – I’m invited to a gallery show and attend (Will to Experience). There I meet a musician from Venezuela who knows the artist. We talk with a mutual friend about art and music and work based travel (Empathy, dasein Experience).

2 – That night I look up (Will to Experience) Venezuela on Google Maps, Wikipedia and Rough Guides on my phone or computer at home… (vicarius Experience)

4 – In a brief (Call to Action) I am asked to design a range of characters for a near-future post-apocalyptic game or medieval fantasy game.

5 – I combine some/not all the character history of the musician I met (projection of Experiences) to create an itinerant minstrel NPC character (Vygotsky’s pivot) who performs in a makeshift bar playing music on his guitar, but who through his travels has gained some of the information (projected Experience) you need to progress your mission (Imagination).

The key to getting this cycle going is breaking down the big inertial problem area, the difficult two-edged sword of Will to Experience versus Fear of Failure. To do that the individual themselves or with help from a mentor, must begin perceiving the value of the individual (vicarius or dasein) experiences, this value (see Bloom’s Affective Domain) cannot sometimes be seen prior to the experience itself and so with the low value placed on it The Will to Experience fails and no experience had, or the value is seen as too high by the individual (peer pressure, interviews, deadlines etc), and so Fear of Failure and the subsequent cognitive dissonance or lack of Will To Experience sets in and again the Experience is lost. A mentor can, if accepted by the mentored individual, be indispensable in this process, even if only as a catalyst.

Imagination, rather than being some deity-given gift, a grand mystery of an elect few or a genetic predisposition (i.e. that traditional notion of Talent), seems when investigated to stem from the ability to project outcomes not developed in actual causal experience; and as so it is, as an ability, subject to bloom’s taxonomy, or in traditional terms a craft to be practiced.

It appears to be linked to empathy or the firing of mirror neurons through the ability to see situations concepts and experiences from a range of perspectives (particularly that of “others” or projected parallel causation).

This pragmatic creative act, the result of a Call to Action, empowered by Empathy and Experience is then the “pivot” as Vygotsky might have had it, that allows the individual to take the experiences they have had, and the experiences of others, into a third state that has never been experienced before, but remains recognisable through the projection of an individuals Empathy and any subsequent audiences own experiences.

This act of willfully imbuing creative works with purposeful conventions and emotive resonances could be described as Priming on the part of the creative, triggering an audiences Involutary Memories perhaps.

With this process/cycle/relationship of taxons recognised (albeit not on quite this technical or conscious level), and susequently Sythesised into the practice of the individual (as this is an ongoing process and one that does not end), there is little to do but practice the pertinent craft skills involved, and repeat, eventually Naturalising the whole process.

The latter part of this ongoing process becoming cyclic and ever expansive, after Bloom’s Taxonomy (see also the explaination of my adaptation of Bloom – below).

0 - aa Revisiting Blooms Taxonomy 2013 -

Further, in order to include two other key elements of the creative act I feel to be important, I have begun to develop extensions/iterations of the visual above.

Here you can see that I’ve also considered viewing the taxonomy as a wave, rather than a pyramid or fixed hierarchical structure.

Here we can see the elements of the taxonomy peaking and troughing** from Reflective and Developmental phases of creative practice into intuition (which here increases with practice, and often manifests itself in the Play/Creating/Synthesis/Reflection phase) and Pragmatic Application (the act of applying/assembling all that has come before into a product once Play, Reflection and Development has run its course or provided ways forward).

These are all of course equally important, if somewhat broader aspects of a creative practice.

Play is of course another activity which appears to be in decline… Perhaps due to the targeted (by marketeers) childhoods that children live now, as Dr Peter Gray puts it, the decline in empathy and the rise in Narcissism in the young, and “the things they must have, just to fit in (to a narrow, consumer’s existence)”, rather than the open exploration of social interaction that prepares for a broader, freer life.
It is also interesting to hear Dr Gray mention in passing a possible link between Empathy and Creativity.
**No inherent value is to be construed from the language here, the following image would work equally well upside down…

0 - aa Revisiting Blooms Taxonomy as a wave 2013 -

The image above is still a work in progress some visual representations jar with the overarching themes.

One of the outcomes of this investigation seems to be that reading therefore can be seen to be a valid and available source of vicarius Experience and causally, Empathy.

As discussed by Judith Butler (philosopher) in her 2013 McGill Commencement Address.

“We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”

All of which can be seen to be linked to a increased capacity for a personal micro-culture, from which we draw to develop unique solutions within our creative practice.

Or looking at it in terms of my institution – Reading and CATs (critical and theoretical studies)WILL enhance your studio practice.

The question is, if this is to be developed as a gateway visualisation”for students who shun/eschew reading (whether due to school born fluency issues, or more simply, stubborn manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect) how best to simplify/visualise this theory… a single visual? An Interactive app? A game? A 3D toy?

Well… I guess that’s the next phase of this research project.

§ CBA – (contemporary text speak) Can’t Be Arsed

~ by hesir on June 11, 2013.

2 Responses to “Empathy – and one of its possible roles in Creativity.”

  1. […] My early notes, intended for assimilation into a larger essay/seminar are outlined the following based on the content of the programme (much of which relates to my investigation of the links between Reading/Empathy and Creativity) -: […]

  2. […] Empathy […]

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