Saturday, February 27, 2016

Television and Movies Fine Tune Our Empathy Skills

On a walk this afternoon I ran into my youngest son and his wife. They had the baby in the stroller, dressed well as always for such an event, a stroll. She is in a little pink dress with miniscule black kittens and a big pink bow in her hair (via the fashionable baby headband, not shown). She's almost five months old.  I bend over the stroller and we exchange goo goo eyes and coo softly at one another. Then, finally exhausted of that, I bring it up: 

"Do you think you might want to get together tomorrow night for an Oscars party?" 
They consider it and we try to figure out who in the family has the biggest TV.
Baby Fashion Plate (K"H)

Once I treated a patient with high functioning autism who told me that she watches television to learn social cues. Television increases her intellectual empathy. She knows that even though these are actors and have memorized their responses and lines, their inflections and body language are rich in teaching moments.

If you're a person who doesn't understand what vocal inflection and body language imply, then studying it in the media is probably the cheapest, least embarrassing way to learn. The raised eyebrow, for example, could mean surprise, or it could mean disagreement, doubt, skepticism. Really? A pout or a frown indicates displeasure. Think it's simple? It's not.

My patient might not be able to feel the feelings of the people on screen (emotional empathy), but she can learn what is going on inside them (intellectual empathy) by keying in on reaction shots. It is a process, and people with autism are on a spectrum (like we all are), some higher functioning than others. So you can't assume anything, not even the emotional empathy deficit.

Daniel Ross Goodman, a writer and rabbinical student, has an Op Ed column in the Wall Street journal today about The Revenant, a  film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Mr. Goodman suggests that movie-lovers enjoy this film because Leonard DiCaprio suffers. We go to feel the feelings of the actors, immerse ourselves in that process. Intense feelings spring from exaggerated events, startling our otherwise dormant empathy. And we want to be empathetic, to feel the feelings of other people. It is why women lunch, and men should. Women shmooze, empathize, then validate. It is a love fest.

Films like The Revenant deliver, manipulate our emotions and most of us do empathize. But don't all good films draws us in, and don't most of us empathize? For some (males) it will be intellectually, because they know they should, and for others it is emotional, because we can't help it. Regardless of type, we flex that empath muscle for a few short (or long) hours, feel what it feels like to be in dire straits. And so many movies are about dire straits that the soon-to-be rabbi's theory makes sense.

Except that none of us, not emotionally empathetic (the luck of the draw, genetics, so quit patting yourself on the back) or the intellectually empathetic (it's still good), have to go to the movies to feel for people.  On a bad day empathetic people empathize with the families of victims of disease, crime, war, abuse, and natural disasters, for starts. On a good day, the best journalists pull it out of us with human interest stories.

Still, I like Goodman's theory because it surely applies in a small way to everyone, everyone goes to movies about people who feel, whereas only some of us watch nature shows about spiders, and I love the example, Hugh Glass, a 19th century frontiersman who suffers twelve life-threatening tests, twelve torturous struggles, on a mission to find the man who killed his son. Mr. Goodman writes:
As we squirm in our seats, Mr. DiCaprio, as Hugh Glass, survives brutal cold, a vicious bear mauling, Indian attacks, and other dreadful depredations...
We feel for Hugh Glass.

In another section of the newspaper, WSJ film critic David Thomson warns us:
Audiences found The Revenant "too much . . .too strenuous, too long, too exhausting, too male, too snowy, to much raw meat, too much violence"
This may seem like a non-sequitur but be patient, but when my friends and I go to the movies, as the previews roll, we play a game. You play it too, the Do We Want to See This One game.

At some point during the preview one of us will say, "Oh, for sure I want to see that."  Or maybe, "You couldn't get me to see this one for all the tea in China." Or, "I'll take the kids." Or, "Don't take the kids." We often disagree. Watching the preview of The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio resolutely surviving the freezing cold, shivering inside the carcass of a freshly killed bear, we all agree. No thanks.


I think because seeing the bloody carcass, the muddy waters, the grunge, our empathy sensors kicked in, but went into over-drive. It is exactly as soon-to-be rabbi Goodman might say. We feel badly for Hugh Glass, stuck inside a bloody carcass. Except that we feel so badly, we can't watch anymore. It is a matter of degree, cringe.

So some of us go to the movies because we want to empathize, but some of us don't go because we don't want to empathize. The second group can't stand too much blood, or too much cold, too much raw meat, or violence. We don't have that need to feel badly, to be put in a bad place, to feel for someone who is in a bad place. Why voluntarily subject ourselves to that?

One hypothesis for the study might be:
People who score high on emotional empathy prefer not to cringe while watching actors feel negative emotions in a film, whereas people who score high on intellectual empathy don't cringe, so they don't mind the experience of watching actors feel negative emotions in a film..  
The theory behind the hypothesis is that emotional empathy can make you feel bad, whereas intellectual empathy is a function of logic, not emotion, and has less of an emotional effect, if any.

Not sure who is bringing the popcorn, or who will make the guac, hopefully somebody picks up some sushi. Watching the Oscars, another excuse for a party, isn't something we do every year because we want to empathize with the winners or the losers, although you could make a case that we watch to live vicariously through them.

It is all about the clothes.


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