Imagination = Empathy

Humans are the only (to our knowledge) beings capable of intentionally imagining a fictitious or fabricated reality.

• Imagine you’re in a desert. There’s nothing but greasewood brush, tussocks of bramble and strange looking cactus, bulbous nodes dangling off platter sized palms like testicles on a dying mule. Overhead, buzzards like drones circle your desiccated shape, a shape barely wide enough to cast a shadow. You step aside an unsuspecting boulder to have your calf bit and pumped full of rattlesnake venom. No warning. No baby-rattle susurration before the strike. The agony hits like a hot brand. You stumble and fall, your breath squeezed from your chest. A sensation like molten mercury seeps up your leg. The beast bites and slithers off, content in the knowledge that, though you won’t be its next meal, you will most definitely feed a fellow high desert compatriot.•

OK. Did you go there? Did you read along and imagine your/their plight? If so, then it was your imagination that provided the empathy you felt for this unfortunate soul lost in the desert.

Empathy is your imagination placing you in the situation of another.

Empathy is you commiserating with, through the virtual world of your mind’s pictorial capability, another being, human or otherwise.

You can imagine, therefore you can feel another’s suffering—virtually at least.

It is due to our expansive, our far-too-large-for-our-own-good brains that we have been cursed with the ability to empathize with another creature. We can imagine their pain. Their suffering. Their soul crushing loss or failure, or shame. Our imagination gives us this ability.

Altruism is our ability to share, often to our own detriment, our personal safety, wealth and prosperity. Why would we ever do this? Dogs don’t do this. Dolphins, chimps, corvids—species with advanced intelligence, even consciousness don’t do this. Only humans go out of their way to ensure another’s survival. Why?

Because we can imagine how it feels to be that other being.

Our imagination is the source of our empathy.

18 thoughts on “Imagination = Empathy

  1. We could learn a lot from elephants about how to take care of each other. Also, maybe it’s anthropomorphism, but I’ve always found that dogs seem to know when you need comforting, which is maybe why they make the best therapy animals:-)

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    1. Elephants, yeah. The sensitive souls of the savanna. They surely seem to mourn their dead. Can they empathize with another elephant’s misery though?
      It would be foolish to say that we are the only ones. So, who knows.

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  2. Xenophobia is in our DNA, according to Yuval Hurari, genius de-jour. Lasseter will be discussing this in an upcoming blog post. And, yes, I spell Lasseter’s name consistently now.

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  3. Can you imagine, then, why so many have no empathy in this day and age? In fact, I hear it all the time: “Why do *I* have to stay home when I’m feeling fine, just because SOMEONE ELSE might get sick and die?!” No empathy.

    I suppose that some folks, the followers of one orange-skinned nitwit for example, simply lack imagination. Actually, that might explain a lot …

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    1. I’m thinking the reason we can be so indifferent or monstrous to each other is choice. We choose to engage or disengage our empathic selves, disconnecting our imaginations.
      There two asides to this that I considered:
      1) sociopaths appear to have their imaginations disconnected from their emotions; they are incapable of feeling another’s emotions. Psychopaths appear to have this connection intact, but actually enjoy imagining the pain and suffering of others.
      2) The science fiction stories that portray empaths. Such characters seem to have a permanent connection between their imaginations and their emotions. They cannot turn off feeling the emotions and sensations of others.

      Both of these thoughts help inform the theory that we choose with whom or what we empathize.
      It’s the movies we watch and the stories we read that get us emotionally involve. It’s our imaginations kicking in that allow us to pretend that we’re loving, hating, failing or persevering along with the characters. But I believe it’s our choice to enable or disable this connection.

      It would no doubt be a better world if we were forced to endure the suffering we inflict on others.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Virtually induced suffering might do the trick–punitive AI, perhaps. I think you’re right about making a choice to disconnect empathy. Some of us do it better than others. I still think the way our brains evolved has made us an unfit life form for this planet. That could play out in a variety of unpleasant ways.

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  4. Sponge Bob Square Pants has a running bit on imagination. I do wonder though about how some animals appear to help humans. You know, the dog in the house fire, the dolphin with the drowning girl, the chicken picking the winning horse. Stuff like that. Thanks. Duke

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    1. Hubris, I know, to assume that other creatures have no imaginations. A dog’s spastic galloping while it sleeps must certainly signify dreams, the intentional contrivances of a New Caledonia Raven, the thought of an oily sardine to a porpoise returning a soccer ball — all seem like they might equate to imagination in some capacity. But intentional thought projection? Maybe.

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      1. Hi A. Mole,

        Yeah, it is the intentional part that needs definition. Surely there are relative degrees of intention to an action. I have always contended that humans lack the measurement tools to really understand what animals as well as plants are trying to communicate to us. This seems reasonable to me given that animals feel pain and show loyalty and plants are sensitive to a wide variety of stimulus that has nothing to do with soil and water. In one of my oral exams I made the case for chickens having a language that one day might be shown superior to that of humans. I was lucky they didn’t deny my degree. I guess what I mean by all of this is that humans always put themselves at the top of the life forms and I really don’t believe that to be true. Again, we just don’t have the measurement tools to show what other types of communications and intentions are passing through our environment. So many unanswered questions that stem from our imaginations. I’ve also noticed that when we imagine something, it often has a way of turning into reality. Thanks. Duke

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        1. Anthropocentrism seems a natural tendency given that we look around and think we are masters of our universe. Humility may only show itself in those who have dug deeply into the unknown finding an ever deeper hole beneath them. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

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