Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

by Dr Kelvin Clayton, Postdoctoral Researcher

The great thing about doing research, particularly inter-disciplinary research like this project, is that you just do not know what connections are waiting to be made, and for me, improving our understanding of something (like our understanding of the potential for art and culture to develop reflection and empathy across geographical divides) is all about making connections. My plan this morning was first of all to catch up on various articles and research material that had been deposited in the project ‘dropbox’. However, the down side of research is that often you feel that you are just wasting valuable time. You have little idea as to how valuable an article may be until you have read it, and even skim reading a number of them can sometimes feel a loss of precious moments – the loss of part of your life that you will never see again. That was how I felt for the first half hour at least. The material I was reading was high on rhetoric and fashionable phrases, but low on substance.

There was though a reference to a recently published report by the Arts Council: The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society. Skimming through this I came across the following statement: ‘Perhaps the strongest way in which arts and culture contributes towards citizenship and social inclusion is by strengthening social capital.’ Now that is an interesting connection. The notion of social capital can be traced back to Robert D. Putman’s now famous article ‘Bowling Alone’, which I had read some time ago but had not thought about for some while. Rereading it reminded me that for him ‘social capital’ refers ‘to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’. These social networks, he adds, ‘foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust’ and ‘facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved’. You get the idea. He then proceeds to lament the decline (in the USA) of civic engagement and mentions a few areas that (at the time, in 1995) were counter trends. There was, though, no mention of arts and culture.

Now from the above connection between ‘art and culture’ and ‘social capital’ two further connections suddenly materialised – to my own work on norms (and then onto some earlier research I had done for the project on empathy and sympathy) and to a whole body of work on social networks, particularly the difference between strong and weak social ties and the relative importance of the latter. From these thoughts on social networks (again, an area that I had not actively thought about for several years) two further connections sprang to mind that returned me to the current research project, the problem of understanding empathy / sympathy across geographical divides, and some material that I came across for the first time a couple of weeks ago about ‘connective aesthetics’. Oh, and just to really labour the point, also to an idea that appeared in the novel I’m attempting to read before falling asleep.

An area of philosophy that I am particularly interested in is social ontology – what society actually is. In previous research I have argued that what we generally regard as social structures (our norms, laws, institutions etc.) are what I term ‘expectations’ that have been codified to various degrees, and that these ‘expectations’ emerge from our developing interaction with other people and our world such that in any given situation they inform us what we think will happen or what should happen. The details of my argument to support this are out of place here, and anyway are not particularly relevant. What is relevant though is that according to this argument these ‘expectations’ develop as a result of feedback from the responses of others to what we say and do, from what G.H.Mead refers to as ‘taking the attitude of the other towards ourselves’.

The reason that I mention all this is that it connects with the work of the psychologist Martin L. Hoffman on empathy. Hoffman’s research suggests that what we term empathy is more than just an affective response, it is a developmental trait that passes through various ‘pre-verbal, automatic and involuntary’ stages before (hopefully) becoming a ‘cognitively advanced’ mode, one first requiring language and then employing role taking. Moreover, for Hoffman, ‘empathic distress’ (which is affective and self-focused) has to be transformed into ‘sympathetic distress’ (which is cognitive and other-focused) before any voluntary action to help the other can take place. In relation to the aims and objectives of this project I think that this differentiation of empathy and sympathy, and the ability to generate or provoke the latter out of the former, is important.

The other line of reflection that I referred to above concerns social networks. Much has been written over the years about the complex and dynamic nature of these networks, but the aspect that I was reminded of is the difference between what has been referred to as strong and weak social ties. Strong ties are those established within families and very cohesive groups and communities, between people who know each other well and have a great deal of common interests and shared beliefs. These, however, are not the important one in terms of ‘community health’ or ‘community flourishing’. The weak ties are those between mere acquaintances, are those that make bridges ‘into distant and other-wise quite alien social worlds’ (to quote Mark Buchanan, Small World). A preponderance of strong ties can make a community insular and slow to change, whist weak ties allow it to be open to new and creative influences. Weak ties then, between distant communities, can be good for both, not just the community that is (perhaps) being helped by the other. The question remains, though, as to how to foster these weak ties through the development of empathy / sympathy.

Which brings me to the final connection, to the aptly named notion of ‘connective aesthetics’. I came across this phrase about a month ago in a paper by Carol S. Jeffers – ‘Within Connections: Empathy, Mirror Neurons and Art Education’. In it Jeffers surveys the results of neuro-scientific research into the controversial subject of mirror neurons to explore ‘empathic social interaction’ in the classroom. Leaving aside whether there is such a particular type of neuron, this connection is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because neuro-networks behave in a not dissimilar manner to social networks, and second because however caused imitation, mimicking the actions of others, is the first step in Hoffman’s developmental model of empathy. It appears to be well accepted that there are certain facial gestures (like fear or disgust) which are universal, and when seen can be imitated, and when imitated the feeling that produced them is reverse engineered. In this vein, Jeffers talks about ‘connective aesthetics’, an ‘imaginative and reconstructive process in the human brain.’ She suggests that such simulations ‘as induced by gesturing hands, signifying tools and strokes, expressive faces, and harmonious connections, provide the foundation for embodied learning.’ She illustrates her point by reference to a former student of hers:

Having once copied a similar piece as faithfully as she could, Molly explained that she felt a special connection to Cezanne – to the apples and bottles, to his brushwork, his knowledge – and had imagined her hand reaching into the painting to grasp one of his apples and all that it signified.

I have no idea how seriously to take this idea, but I do find it totally fascinating. Moving beyond the simple imitation of facial gestures and the reverse engineering of the emotion that gave rise to them, this suggests the possibility of producing some deep connection with another person through the imitation of the process that produced their work of art. It’s certainly an idea worth pursuing. And just to push this idea to the limit, last week I came across the idea expressed in a novel that I’m reading. Here the character speaking is referring to composers like Beethoven and Ravel:

Into their music these composers poured their fiercest beings. When a pianist memorizes a piece, he or she gets to know the dead man intimately – giving rise to all the pleasures and difficulties such an intense relationship implies. You learn Mozart’s trickery, his ADD attention span. Bach’s yearning for acceptance, his intolerance for shortcuts. Listz’s explosive temper. Chopin’s insecurity. And thus when you set out to make their music come alive in concert, on stage, in front of thousands, you very much need the dead man on your side. Because you are bringing him back to life.

Marisha Pessl, Night Film (London: Windmill Books, 2014) p199

Making connections not just with those people separated by space, but also by time? How far can we take this idea? Anyway, the connections do not stop here. Who knows what connections you will make during or after reading this? Who knows what further connections I will make after posting this? And of course, the potential connections exist in many dimensions – emotional, cognitive and social to name but a few. All that really matters is the dynamics of forging connections.

Early Reflections

Early Reflections on our Cultural Value project by Dr Ann O’Sullivan, Postdoctoral Researcher

What is compassion? What is empathy? What is under-standing? When I was eighteen I went for an interview to become a nurse because as I stated ‘I want to help people’. Does this make me compassionate? When I watch wildlife programmes on the television if there is any indication that an animal is about to be hurt I have to turn it off immediately. Does this make me compassionate? If my sister is hurting then I am hurting, is this empathy? If my partner is sad then I am sad, is this empathy? As a student counsellor I was trained in active listening techniques in an effort to be empathic of my clients’ situation. I would listen to their stories and try to ‘stand in their shoes’ but with no prior relationship it was very difficult to say I was empathic. It seems that what comes with ease with close family and friends takes much more effort with those at a distance. I struggled with empathy in my counselling practice, it just never came naturally. With intimates, one has the relationship on which to build a bridge of empathy; with clients, one has the narrative, the story that they tell of the self. There are certain fields of counselling such as narrative therapy that suggest that empathy is not something that one has for a client but something that one co-constructs with the client. The language space between the client and the counsellor is the space in which empathy must be constructed through the telling of a particular type of narrative, usually a problem narrative.

I am interested in the Lidice project because of the focus on empathy and compassion alongside an interest in narrative. There are so many ways to look at narratives from a completely structural point of view in that they have a beginning, middle and an end, to an interest in what the narrative conveys i.e. it content. The interest in the narrative for its content is the basis of a lot of qualitative research whereby we accept at face value that the content of the narrative is representative of some external reality. I am much more interested in what narratives do or the function of a particular narrative. Why this particular narrative at this particular time in this particular context. Everyone who enters the door of a therapist’s office does so knowing that they are going to tell a particular kind of story, a problem saturated story. Everyone who enters a doctor’s office will tell a particular kind of story usually an illness narrative or a narrative put together of clues to indicate a particular illness. Go to an AA meeting and they will have their own genre of narratives to tell. But above all my interest is the way in which narratives are strategically put together to construct a particular type of self.

I begin to wonder if particular types of narrative elicit empathy or compassion more than other types. The problem saturated narrative may elicit compassion the rising above adversity narrative may elicit empathy. The dominant narratives of our own lives may make us particularly susceptible to the same narratives told to us as the audience, just as we are drawn to particular genres of film or literature.

A busy week on our Cultural Value project

After two months of interviews and focus groups, involving academics and artists/creative practitioners, last week saw the first of our working group meetings. A number of artists and academics have agreed to work with the project team to develop new resources for the design and evaluation of arts projects and museum exhibitions in ways that better recognises and demonstrates their value in terms of empathy, compassion and understanding.

The artists included a community artist/photographer; a writer/playwright; a public artist and an arts charity co-ordinator. The project team who were there at the workshop included Jackie, Janet, Ann, John, and Kimberley. At the start of the workshop, we shared some interesting quotes from the focus groups and the interviews. We asked people to choose quotes that resonated with them or particularly interested them. This led to interesting discussions about the barriers to empathy, ’empathy fatigue’, and ways that people have engaged with empathy with museum displays. One of the quotes in particular highlighted the way in which focusing on individual stories and the common everyday of experiences of people (regardless of their differences), can have the greatest impact:

…when you go in there, there is twelve artefacts in glass cabinets around the outside and it’s not your traditional sort of storytelling museum. It just said the person’s name, their age, the fact that they were married or whether they had children and then it told an anecdote about their last days and so the one that absolutely and completely got me was it said underneath one that this guy was talking to his son and he just wanted the war to be over so he could go home and have chicken and chips for his tea. And that kind of just kicks you in the chest and I think that for me is the most powerful museum exhibition I have ever seen… And I think as well if hadn’t have known where I was in the world that could have been anybody from any nationality or any religion. It didn’t force you to have those kind of stereotypes or think that happened somewhere else. It actually made you realise that is was just a normal person with a family so I think that was why it was so powerful really.

Lecturer and Research Lead: Holocaust Archaeology

Ann then gave a 20 minute presentation about the emerging research findings. We want the new tools and approaches to be informed by the research, and so an important part of  the workshops is sharing and discussing the findings. Various evaluation techniques linked to empathy and compassion (quantitative and qualitative) have been mentioned by participants and some of these were also shared and discussed. We had an interesting discussion about whether it might be possible to adapt some of the measurement tools that are used in the field of health to apply them to arts projects. There is a certain resistance to doing this, which is not surprising given the context of the work, particularly with the focus on storytelling, which would strongly suggest qualitative approaches. One of the participants had been involved an arts project about Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice, which prompted unsolicited submissions of poetry from audiences about their response to the story. The idea of people adding their own new stories in response to an arts project is clearly hugely valuable and appealing.  However, at this stage we’re considering a wide variety of approaches to evaluation, and are ruling nothing out.

A point that has been strongly made throughout the project is that of the value of artists actually setting aside time to discuss and reflect upon important issues that impact on their practice (like empathy and compassion). It was noted that this could be done both in an online setting and face to face (with cake – an essential part of our meetings!). Such opportunities for interaction could certainly be part of an on-going strategy to explore the value of arts and culture in relation to empathy, compassion and understanding.

Jackie Reynolds

Guest Blog Post by Garry Abbott



By Garry Abbott

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”(“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added

Chain of empathy v2

There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I originally called this diagram ‘the chain of empathy’ overlooking the fact that empathy plays only a part, and can therefore in theory be examined separately – notably without judgement (something the psychologist Carl Rogers famously proposed). Therefore I am presenting empathy here in the chain of judgement and emotional response, as it is often used, if not exclusively.  (Revision added – 27/03/2014)

** I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott




Twitter:                  @Garry_Abbott