April 24, 2013

Tuesday 30th April, 2013


Have you ever been disinterested in – even repulsed by – a product then, after time, changed your mind? Maybe a style of shoe you think is hideous until you see it on every third pair of feet you pass. And suddenly ‘Those are ugly’ becomes ‘I have to have those – now’… Those are your mirror neurons at work

Martin Lindstrom – Buyology


Last week, I was in Cardiff recording a radio play I’ve written for Radio 4, also on the subject of empathy.

WATCH ME is a love story, told as a scientific drama documentary. Anja, an advertising creative, and Rhys, a single father meet after a focus group presentation, for Anja’s campaign for a new type of baby food.

Mirror neurons, only discovered in 1992, help us imitate people and feel empathy. They’re what helped transfer early skills such as how to make fire, what make us wince when we see someone suck a lemon – and feel a sense of warmth when we watch the John Lewis Christmas ads. WATCH ME looks at their role both in the world of advertising, and human relationships.

WATCH ME will be on Radio 4 on August 12th 2013 at 2.15pm, with Sarah Smart as Anja and Alun Raglan as Rhys. Directed by James Robinson.

Wednesday 24th April, 2013

Once I link the sight of someone grasping a bottle of ice cold drink on a hot day, the condensation against their fingers, as they bring the bottle to their lips with doing the same thing myself, then I begin to understand the world. This feat of our brain, our connection with each other is, to a large extent, what makes us human.

Professor Christian Keysers

In March I went to Amsterdam, where I started my commission on EMPATHY by spending the day with Professor Christian Keysers. Christian is a neuroscientist whose work on mirror neurons – and how the brain allows us to share the inner states of other people – has been seminal for the scientific study of empathy. He and his wife Valeria Gazzola lead The Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for neuroscience.

Having read his book THE EMPATHIC BRAIN, I interviewed Christian for THE EMPATHY ROADSHOW, my one woman performance which will be touring community groups in and around Canterbury from June of this year.

When I began thinking about how we understand the social world around us, I envisioned a problem in which I am in here… and you are all out there, in the world, beyond my reach. How can I make sense of you? My vision of humanity was typically western – that of a solipsistic individual. Our Western societies are built around the individual and their right to pursue personal fulfilment.

Professor Christian Keysers

Christian Keysers being interviewed for
The Empathy Roadshow

This idea of how societies are built and how that can affect everything, including how we understand the way we think and feel, struck me as I walked through central Amsterdam, with its tall, narrow houses. Most of this area was built in the city’s ‘Golden Age’, when you were taxed according to how much street-frontage your house took up – paying more the wider your house was. This, I realised, is why this beautiful architecture exists – to avoid severe taxes. In many properties, the staircases are so narrow that it’s impossible to take furniture up and down them. Hence the hooks at the top of each house, to winch goods up and pass them through the windows.

In their book ON KINDNESS, published in 2009, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor explore the way that a culture of competitive individualism and the pursuance of self-interest have challenged the value and meaning of kindness.

“Kindness was steadily downgraded from a universal imperative to the prerogative of specific social constituencies: romantic poets, clergymen, charity-workers and above all women, whose presumed tender-heartedness survived the egoist onslaught. By the end of the Victorian period, kindness had been largely feminized, ghetto-ised into a womanly sphere of feeling and behaviour where it has remained, with some notable exceptions, ever since”.

My interview with Christian gives me the structural and ideological ‘spine’ of my piece. My next task is to interview three people who feel that empathy plays a big part in their lives, and their work: a hairdresser, a dentist and a sweet shop owner.

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