The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In the 1890s the novelist Vernon Lee (born Violet Paget) and her friend, and probably lover, Kit Anstruther-Thomson traveled to Rome, where they performed an intriguing psychological experiment. Standing before a cast of the Venus de Milo, Anstruther-Thomson reported minuscule shifts in her internal balance that seemed, according to Lee who was scribbling it all down, to echo the sculpture’s design. In high-vaulted churches, Anstruther-Thomson reported feeling her lungs fill with air. In front of Grecian urns, she felt a bulging sensation at the belly. Today their experiment seems, well, a little off-piste, but in the 1890s it was rooted in a cutting-edge psychological concept. On the Continent, Einfühlung (literally: in-feeling, or vicarious sensation) was being vaunted as the next big thing, a purely physiological explanation for the pleasure of looking at inanimate objects, landscapes, even weather: our bodies were primed to imitate them, and it was from this complicity that enjoyment came. Lee’s experiments are particularly important to historians of psychology and emotions because she was one of the first to popularize the translation of the German Einfühlung into a newly coined Greek word: empathy.

Today empathy means something different. It’s a feeling of emotional resonance between people rather than between people and objects, and is much celebrated (according to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, as a “universal solvent”: “any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble”). The ability to intuit the distress of another, or to feel a faint echo of their excitement, and therefore respond in ways that bring the other person closer, rather than alienate them, is an overt requirement of certain professions—nursing, sales and teaching, to name a few. In emotional-literacy classes in British schools, children are taught empathy, so that alongside language and numbers a capacity for vicarious feeling is becoming an expected indicator of a child’s development (and conversely, when illnesses such as autism are described, a lack of empathy is cited as the primary symptom).

As was the case in the 1890s with the concept of Einfühlung, the idea that fellow feeling might have a physiological basis has become most exciting of all. Are we “hardwired” to feel other people’s pain or happiness? In the 1990s neuroscientists at the University of Parma discovered cells in the brains of monkeys that fire not just when the animal performs a given action—eating a banana, say—but when it witnesses another do so too. The researchers dubbed these cells “mirror neurons,” and despite the fact they are yet to be found in humans, in the last twenty years the idea that we are primed to feel what others are feeling has become one of the most controversial and overhyped claims in neuroscience. Advocates of mirror-neuron theory such as the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran claim that “mirror-neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology,” providing a unifying explanation for all human behavior. Philosophers, artists and humanities scholars have enthusiastically taken up his suggestion, and mirror-neurons have been feted as evidence of our deep interconnectedness.

But perhaps it is this frothy excitement about the idea of mirror neurons that is most intriguing of all. The urge to find physiological evidence of a shared response is not a new one. The origins of the word “empathy” might lie in the early twentieth century, but the desire to find a natural instinct to explain kindness goes back even further.

The sentimental philosophers of the eighteenth century—David Hume, Lord Shaftesbury, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith (more famous for his economic theories) among them—also believed they too had identified a bodily instinct for fellow feeling. What today is called “empathy,” they called “sympathy,” and saw evidence for it in the primitive physical reflexes: “When we see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm,” wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). “And when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer… this is the source of our fellow feeling.” Today’s psychologists and philosophers (and politicians) speak of empathy as the panacea for an increasingly atomized society. For the moral philosophers of the eighteenth century, the promise of inbuilt sympathy countered what seemed to be a rising tide of selfishness in their society too. Theirs was a response to the pessimistic view of writers such as Thomas Hobbes, who had argued that the human urge for power was entirely natural and should be restrained: “Nature,” he wrote, makes men “apt to invade, and destroy one another” (see also: RIVALRY).

The eighteenth-century interest in sympathy gave rise to an astonishing cult of benevolence—or what we’d call today philanthropy. “Benevolists,” stirred by what was called “social affection,” began to grapple with the ills of their age with utopian fever: slavery, child labor, animal cruelty. “Men of Feeling” set up schools and hospitals. “What can be more nobly human than to have a tender sentimental feeling of our own and others’ misfortunes?” wrote one anonymous author in an article defending the voguish practice of “moral weeping” of 1755. The idea of crying for an extended period over someone else’s distress seems rather self-indulgent today (see: COMPASSION), but the anonymous author thought it a spur to action: “Weeping for the affliction of others… we benevolently hasten to assist them.” It was a brief flourishing of kindness. Very brief, in fact. By the end of the century tenderhearted “moral weeping” was being satirized for its self-indulgence, and the word “sentimentality” began to accrue the associations with inauthenticity and mawkishness it has today.

When we look back at the eighteenth century’s turn to sympathy, its practical effects are surprising. Has the twenty-first century’s interest in empathy, both as a physiological fact and a voguish moral attitude, engendered a similar wave of philanthropy? When our politicians speak of a “politics of empathy,” it’s hard not to feel cynical: a stilted expression of sympathy costs little, and is a poor stand-in for proper pensions or decent health care. But if we are shriveled by narcissism and in the grip of a compassion deficit, then we might just have to hope that empathy is the “universal solvent” some promise it to be.

See also: DISMAY; PITY.