Metaphor and Empathy

Sweetness and strangeness
by Heather Altfeld and Rebecca Diggs

In thinking through some of the ways that our relationship to metaphor might be changing, especially in educational settings, we consulted a study by Emily Weinstein and her research team at Harvard, published in 2014. They set out to study a possible decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team hoped to understand the potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. It turned out that there were observable gains in the sophistication and complexity of visual artwork, but when it came to the creative-writing endeavours of the two groups, the researchers found a ‘significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre, and a trend toward more formulaic narrative style’.

The team cited standardised testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, as well as changing modes of written communication that create ‘a multitude of opportunities for casual, text-based communication’ – in other words, for literalism, abbreviation and emojis standing in for words and feelings. With visual arts, by contrast, greater exposure to visual media, and the ‘expansive mental repositories of visual imagery’ informed and inspired student work.

Of course, quantifying creativity is problematic, even with thoughtfully constructed controls, but it is provocative to consider what the authors saw as ‘a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism’, and how this might relate to a turn away from metaphoric thinking. […]

In a long-term project focusing on elementary school and the early years of high school, the psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner at Boston College studied the relationship between empathy and experience. In particular, they wanted to understand how empathy and theories of mind might be enhanced. Looking at children who spent a year or more engaged in acting training, they found significant gains in empathy scores. This isn’t surprising, perhaps. Acting and role-play, after all, involve a metaphoric entering-into another person’s shoes via the emotional lives and sensory experiences of the characters that one embodies. ‘The tendency to become absorbed by fictional characters and feel their emotions may make it more likely that experience in acting will lead to enhanced empathy off stage,’ the authors conclude.

For one semester, I taught the Greek tragedy Hecuba to college students in Ancient Humanities. The first part of Hecuba centres on the violence toward women during war; the second half offers a reversal whereby, in order to avenge the deaths of her children, Hecuba kills Polymestor – the king of Thrace – and his two sons, just as he killed her son, whose safety he had explicitly guaranteed. The play is an instruction in lament, in sorrow, rage and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal. To see it is to feel the agony of a woman betrayed, who has lost all her children to war and murder. To act in it – as students do, when we read it, much to their horror – is to feel the grief and rage of a woman far removed from our present world, but Hecuba’s themes of betrayal and revenge resonate still: the #MeToo movement, for example, would find common ground with Hecuba’s pain.

Eva Maria Koopman at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has studied the ‘literariness’ of literature and its relationship to emotion, empathy and reflection. Koopman gave undergraduates (and for sample size, some parents as well) passages of the novel Counterpoint (2008) by the Dutch writer Anna Enquist, in which the main character, a mother, grieves the loss of her child. Thus, Koopman attempted to test age-old claims about the power of literature. For some of the readers, she stripped passages of their imagery and removed foregrounding from others, while a third group read the passages as originally written by Enquist.

Koopman’s team found that: ‘Literariness may indeed be partly responsible for empathetic reactions.’ Interestingly, the group who missed the foregrounding showed less empathetic understanding. It isn’t just empathy, however, that foregrounding triggers, it’s also what Koopman identifies as ‘ambivalent emotions: people commenting both on the beauty or hope and on the pain or sorrow of a certain passage’. Foregrounding, then, can elicit a ‘more complex emotional experience’. Reading, alone, is not sufficient for building empathy; it needs the image, and essential foreground, for us to forge connections, which is why textbooks filled with information but devoid of narrative fail to engage us; why facts and dates and events rarely stick without story.

4 thoughts on “Metaphor and Empathy

  1. I’m not sure what to think of this evidence. The article came to my attention because it was shared on the Facebook group for Julian Jaynes. And indeed Jaynes is mentioned in the article, as part of an explanation about why metaphors are important.

    One thing that stood out to me is the statement that, “when it came to the creative-writing endeavours of the two groups, the researchers found a ‘significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre, and a trend toward more formulaic narrative style’.”

    That is interesting from a Jaynesian perspective. Early writings prior to Jaynesian consciousness tended to be formulaic. Consider Homeric literature. It is filled with what at the time would have been cliches and tropes. It’s a style of writing lacking in originality. That is unsurprising as it developed out of an oral tradition with little variance over time.

    In modernity, we’ve come to think of originality as the height of civilization. It’s a key element of our highly prized individuality. Yet those early classics of Western civilization were not products of this hyper-individualistic originality.

    So, what might it mean that there is a return to these roots of Western civilization? It could be simply a momentary fluke. Maybe people are always drawn to the formulaic during uncertain and stressful times. Maybe the present generation is simply seeking the comfort of what is familiar when facing prospects of a future that aren’t so comforting.

    • The Creativity Crisis
      The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

      I had a good many articles on tap a few years ago regarding the struggles taking place in Academia — primarily the struggle of teachers and professors to ward off implementation of “standardization” and the corporate model adopted across the board, about which we spoke earlier.

      Alas, I didn’t store them all in my file and it would take quite a while to gather them all up again — a while I don’t have at the moment.

      Suffice to say that, as in the religious institutions before them, dissenters largely have been driven out — not necessarily forcefully, but simply due to the fact that they just couldn’t take it anymore, a few brave souls opting to continue their attempts to reveal and wrestle with what is happening from outside those hallowed halls rather than within them.

      One woman in particular caught my attention. If I can relocate that awesome lady, I’ll gladly post a link.

      • About the first link, a lot was brought up. I’d like to know more about the specifics of what might be changing. The Flynn Effect hasn’t only been an increase of intelligence but of a specific kind, that of fluid intelligence. The thing about fluid intelligence is that it is more closely associated with creativity, not book learning, rote memory, and analytical thought. That was the pattern of the Flynn Effect over the past century or so. Has that changed?

        Another thought occurred to me. Creative thinking has its advantages. But more of it might not be what we need. I’m willing to bet that, even if creativity dropped a bit, it is still on average far higher than it was in generations past. It’s possible that, on an unconscious level, society is seeking something else in hope of a remedy. Each generation responds to the last, a point that is explained well by the generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe.

        Going back to the 1990s, they predicted the present young generation would be more conformist, based on the generational pattern they observed in the past. Conformity serves a genuine purpose during periods of crisis, as conformity allows for greater collective action. Strauss and Howe saw us coming to a point of requiring collective action. More creativity won’t accomplish that. We don’t lack information, ideas, and insights. As Marianne Williamson said, we don’t need more plans, no matter how bold and innovative.

        It’s just a thought.

        About the second piece, my response is simpler. It seems to me that what the author was talking about are the results of immense inequality, ever growing larger. People become disconnected, especially those at the top. And such disconnection creates certain kinds of mindsets. It’s rather predictable. And trying to improve elite colleges probably won’t make any difference. It’s not what they are learning but the structure of the entire society.

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