This is a weird thought I had while watching an episode of Fringe last week. The episode was called Bound, and it was about weird fish, slug type creatures that emerge out of people’s mouths. there was more depth to it than that but that is the main plot point I remember now. I struggled to watch the scenes involving the fish/slugs. I couldn’t cope with the pain that the people probably went through while vomiting fish.
I’ve just finished reading The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas. I finished this book about two hours ago. Already, I miss the characters. While reading, I got cross at Bryony, I despaired at Ollie and I wanted to shake James and tell him ‘wake up!’. Also, I wanted to be Fleur and I to hug poor Holly and tell her to eat and play tennis. But now I miss them all. I want them back. They won’t come back. I’ve read the last page. I don’t know what happens next.
So my weird thought is: why do I feel so much empathy for the creations of someone’s imagination? Why couldn’t I stand to watch Fringe? Why do I miss people in a book? Do some people feel empathy for the unreal more than others? Am I cursed/blessed to be one of those people? I think so because I asked my husband about how much empathy he feels for the people he comes across on TV or in books and he looked at me rather blankly. His face said: ‘You feel what?’
It is, of course, considered a sign of a healthy psyche to feel empathy (and sympathy) for people in the real world: friends, family, and people on the news. That is not my weird thought. But why waste energy empathising with someone who only exists on paper?
I think that this empathising with fictional characters relates to the idea that we create stories out of everything we encounter, whether it be people, objects, art, anecdotes, people in cafes, people on the beach or old abandoned umbrellas. We come across a scenario, whether it be in a film or a book, of a fictional character going through a painful situation and we elaborate in our heads. We may not know their back story but we create it. We may imagine a tortured childhood, a loss, a painful experience. We create a narrative and this makes us feel empathy.
This experiment by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel shows that the subject we are empathising with doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a shape. Watch this video and you may find that you empathise with the smaller triangle and the circle more than the bigger triangle. Why is that? Perhaps your loyalties lie with the bigger triangle. If so, why? They are just shapes. They don’t have feelings or agency.
How would you feel if the big triangle started to eat the circle? Would you be able to watch the video to the end?
Scientists have suggested that when something moves in a certain way, which in the case of a computer screen is based on in-built algorithms, we assign it with agency and react to it as though it were a living thing. This happens even when logic dictates that the thing is not living (I suspect my husband’s ability to let logic dictate his thoughts is very strong). We have what are called ‘mirror’ neurons in our heads and these neurons act to ‘mirror’ the emotions of others for us. Someone feels pain, we feel or sense that pain, even if that someone is a small triangle. This ability to empathise has an evolutionary element: we will survive better as a race if we are to assist those who need help – safety in numbers. We are hard wired to protect our community. So this biological reaction happens whether the ‘thing’ is an algorithm, words on a page, or dots on a screen, whether it be digital or virtual.
For now, I have a new book to read and new characters to feel for. I hope they don’t end up spewing fish.