Thursday, January 29, 2015


If it is possible to see into another person and know how they feel -- a phenomenon we called “empathy” -- how is it possible to have empathy with someone who doesn’t exist?  Whose eyes do you look into?  The brain catscradle connectome -- the mirror neurons and right supramarginal gyrus don’t have anything to work with.  Anyway, the research I’m looking at confuses all sorts of things: ability to “see into” others, ability to give a damn about anyone else, simple compassion even for a weed struggling to grow, and so on.  This is not so much a surprise when one remembers that a person’s identity is a dynamic composite of shifting abilities, some coming online as others are suppressed.

Co-consciousness seemed to me a better word for empathy than the literary sympathy/
empathy idea derived from literature studies, but “co-consciousness” is used by psych people to denote split personalities, persons who have two or more “identities” shifting in and out of their minds, maybe in a creative and helpful way.  Maybe not.  

Trying to see what he sees.

This is what writers and actors do all the time.  In fact, when one counts the technical matters of things like grammar and onstage presentation, there have got to be three identities present:  the character portrayed, the technical monitor, and the actual person.  This is why it is so important to have the techniques internalized enough to be nearly unconscious.

The actor is using his or her ability to empathize in order to understand and “identify with” a character created by someone else.  There’s no face-to-face contact, though actors learn about that by practicing “transference,” in actor’s terms an exercise in moving someone else from their pre-existing emotional state to the actor’s by interacting, like maybe getting a gloomy person to smile.  (In psychotherapy what is called transference arises spontaneously -- an emergence -- from inside the client. The client’s emotional relationship with someone in the past is slipped over onto the therapist, which is very useful in terms of material to work with, but awkward when it is acted upon as though real -- especially when unrecognized.)

James Franco has a lot of empathy with James Franco.

If the acting is skillful and the play is well-made, then the production has much felt meaning for the audience, which is a second kind of empathy -- to watch people on a stage or screen create scenes and feel what they mean and that the meaning is significant.  Another complication arises here: empathy is often emotional.  Can something rational, even schematic, be an empathic transference of understanding offered by the writer and accepted by the reader or watcher?  Is an emotional chess player better than a cool one?  Presumably the strategy of a game is a function of the prefrontal cortex and strong emotion (except for the drive to win) is seen as interfering, even blinding, that dwells in the “limbic” parts of the unconscious brain so must be suppressed.  How does one suppress the unconscious if the consciousness by definition has no access to it?  

Writers are engaged in the opposite process, bringing felt meaning out of the unconscious and making them into a pattern that can be acted out or analyzed on a page.  They must be using the same brain machinery that sees into the identity of other people, but making it operate oppositely to assemble an identity out of their own experience. Since the memory operates by “filing” moments according to their sensory content and perhaps a cellular time indicator, these become vitally accessible and plentiful.

Empathy with a whatzit.

Actors must first “feel” the character by relating sensory indicators in a secondary use of the writer’s material.  Then they must demonstrate through behavioral clues -- which will come naturally out of their own memories -- what this fictional character is like, following the felt meanings of the script as it progresses to climax and resolution.  If their stage technique supports the story, the audience will then respond empathically, summoning their own memory and felt meanings.  This is the “method” that Stanislavski famously developed by “feeling” the results of experimenting with each of these stages of theatrical development.  He recognized what worked by feeling it.

One of the reasons these matters are so hard to discuss in any clear way is that there isn’t enough vocabulary that isn’t confused between disciplines, let alone practices.  The other problem is that, as William Wegner says, this work is internal, mysterious, more Zen than rule.  All we really know is that -- once felt -- one doesn’t forget and seeks that experience again.  

Bunrako puppets: ignore the men in black--
they're only the puppeteers.

Particularly neglected is any application of these principles to “religious” matters.  We tend to taboo inquiry into religion because the institutions protect their turf.  Maybe that’s not surprising since much “religious” performance is prefrontal cortex stuff: rules, ethics, schematics called “theology,” the dominance of “prescribed” words over felt meaning, particularly in the Abrahamic traditions “we” know best.  Power.  Control.  

Let me try to make a comparison in terms of Blackfeet practices.  In the old days, pre-horse, everything had to be transported as the People went through the nomadic hunting/gathering cycles.  The People walked with their dogs, experiencing everything at ground level, esp. the signs of food: animals, plants, climate shift, geological traces.  Interacting with these things meant survival, and so their “Bundles” acted like hymnals.  Every animal -- carefully skinned, cured and wrapped with tobacco preservative -- had a song and dance, largely imitative of the living animal.  In the ceremony of the Bundle they were empathically regarding the animal: not playfully imitating them, but calling their felt meanings to consciousness as allies in the struggle of staying alive.

A personal Bundle.

Today there are still Bundle-keepers, but they don’t walk the land anymore.  Some of the species are extinct now.  As they drive their pickups along the two-tracks that web the land, they never put their feet on the grass or they would notice overgrazing.  They see rocker pumps pulling up oil, pale Charolais and black Angus cattle, irrigation ditches with day-glo red plastic tarp dams, and only now and then the splintered gray remains of old homesteads.  Any chirping of iniskum would be drowned out by the radio songs.  So today’s Bundle-keepers, earnest as they may be, have no associations in their sense-memories of sitting on a hillside watching a coyote watch a badger dig out a ground squirrel, in case one of the rodents should escape in his direction.  They might take a shot at the coyote -- or the badger.  They behave like institutions guarding their ownership as though it were magic.

One foot in the past, one foot in the future

Theatrical and spiritual are woven together by felt meanings through sense memory.  But institutional religion such as Christianity today has a devil’s choice: use the sense memories of the testaments (herding lambs, salty lake fishing, eroded badlands where shadowy people intrude) or move to the modern equivalents which have more to do with sitting in pews and maybe sipping grape juice for fear of alcoholism -- though the wine of Jesus’ time was nothing like what we drink today.

Felt meaning coming from the “limbic” brain is often classified as “lesser” in comparison to science.  Maybe dangerous.  Unmanaged, unrecognized, emotional images and memories can seem realer than they are.  In fact, there is a little brain organ or nexus that’s in charge of separating the actual world and identity from the one that is constructed in one’s mind -- though the latter can be shared empathetically.  That little knot of neurons is late developing.  Small kids sometimes lose the line between what everyone can sense and what only they are sensing.  

Even as adults we lose the line when watching or reading intense drama.  We WANT to lose the line.  We hunger for the felt meanings of our dreams and the emotions they trigger.  This is our human gift, which is so often a Pandora’s box.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

. . . the emotive comes through; how the abstract and virtual sign and symbol (as in letters and words) can well up actual feeling. Walking over virtual fields, these days, rather than the natural landscape of yesteryear, holds transformed access to felt meaning, i.e., I do feel you, here. Though, a measurement of contrast between the natural and the virtual worlds, when the natural is now (to a great degree) but memory itself, leaves me questioning quality of perceived existence embodied in the then and now. I seem to pass through, seamlessly, dream, waking, and memory worlds, daily/nightly.