Empathy ... It's an art (and science)

Tigran Tsitoghdzyan       Mirror lll, 2013, oil on canvas 75” x 50”

Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Mirror lll, 2013, oil on canvas 75” x 50”

Empathy was first coined to describe the powerful emotional connection human beings can feel when viewing a painting or a sculpture.

To the artist or art-lover, the fact that there’s a connection between empathy and art may seem rather intuitive, something of a no-brainer.  But do you know that there’s some solid science to back up this intuition?  Brain science, in fact.  It is not believed that the connection between artwork and empathy is actually hardwired into our brain cells because of an evolutionary phenomenon called neural mirroring.

Neural mirroring occurs when persons becomes so engaged while merely watching someone else perform an action, especially with their hands, that their own nerve cells fire just as if they were performing the very same action.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

First, imagine an anxious group of people swaying to the stops and stutters of a tight-rope walker above them.  Easy, right?

Now imagine a young apprentice in medieval times attending to his master-teacher at the pottery wheel, absorbing his teacher’s technique at a neural level, and actually feeling the passion his teacher has for the object between his fingers, but not moving his own fingers at all. That’s neural mirroring!

Neural mirroring, it turns out, might just be a primitive social bonding mechanism.

  The human race may have evolved making objects as a communal act.1

That powerful connection a person may feel when viewing a work of art? It may stem from being able to imagine the artist at work, in the past, and how s/he felt. That’s the empathy part.

So it comes as no surprise that some art teachers, art therapists and academics, these days, are actively exploring the empathy/art connection in the classroom and beyond, creating situations where the empathy element isn’t just a happy outcome of the artistic engagement - but the goal.

Think about art instruction to counter bullying in the elementary school; or art instruction to help overcome the stigma of mental illness in the community; or, even, art instruction to bridge the divide between two socially polarized groups.

Empathy entails a kind of surrendering to a new feeling or a new idea.
It’s an act of courage.

“Students are more likely to be receptive of a new idea when they feel safe to explore, question and express the idea. The art classroom, when centered in an ethic of care, can become this place.” 2

Karina Riddett-Mooreconducts arts-based research in the classroom. She designed a sculpting class for 4th graders around a study of Giacometti’s Piazza, “where the concepts of caring, isolation, and relation could be questioned, challenged and deconstructed.”2

For the first 45 minutes she has her students gather in a group, with six of them on stools in the center in a ‘living compositions exercise’  to explore questions of space, body language, interaction and mood.

Then she showed the students a slideshow of Giacometti at work (key to the empathy building process if neural imaging theory is correct.) Then follows the traditional sculpting class where the children create their own figures.

‘Empathetic relations may involve caring for those we don’t see as friends, or those we don’t see at all. This becomes a curricular goal of the lesson: to recognize relationships that we wouldn’t have noticed previously.’ 2



Contributing from Montreal, Quebec CN


Check out this link to learn about another experiment with empathy in the art classroom:  “IMAGINATION IS KEY TO EMPATHY”


1.      Affect Regulation, Mirro Neurons, and the Third Hand; Formulation Mindful Empathetic Art Interventions. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. 24/7 pp. 160-167.

2.      Riddett-Moore, Karinna; Encouraging Empathy Through Artistic Engagement: an Art Lesson in living compositions; International Journal of Education and the Arts, Volume 10, Portrayal 2,October 12, 2009. 

Other sources: Jeffers, Carole S.  On Empathy: the Mirror Neuron System and Art Education. International Journal of Education and the Arts, Volume 10, number 14. 2009.