The transformative power of empathy and creativity

Sarah Mears, co-founder of EmpathyLab, considers the powerful relationship between empathy and creativity

The last eighteen months have thrown all the uncertainties and divisions our world faces into sharp relief. Achieving a healthier, sustainable future and happier more connected lives will require innovation and creative thinking. Creativity blossoms when people learn to understand each other and to love and value difference and diversity. For this reason, empathy is inextricably linked with creativity.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to experience and understand other people’s emotions and perspectives and the work of EmpathyLab aims to raise an empathy-educated generation to build a more caring world. We deliver empathy education programmes with schools and public libraries. Recent research by Helen Demetrious and Bill Nicholl has shown that, not only is it possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so, the development of children's creativity is supported.

A powerful way of unleashing empathy is through stories. Stories create a safe environment in which children can practise empathy. Neuroscience experiments such as those performed by Professor Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto have demonstrated that when we read about characters, areas of the brain are activated the same way as if we are involved with people in a real-life situation and in doing so we understand other people better.

Empathy is often described as a muscle that can be developed with practice and we concentrate on using stories to help children practise four key empathy-building skills:

  • Developing a vocabulary for emotions, because when children can name their emotions, they are better able to understand what they are feeling and recognise these feelings in others.
  • Deep listening, giving full attention to the speaker and acknowledging what they are saying without judgement.
  • Pro-social behaviour, where we are driven to help or make positive changes for the benefit of others.
  • Perspective taking or seeing from the viewpoint of another person.

Empathy and creativity

Perspective taking is at the heart of empathy’s connection with creativity, because both are powered by imagination. When we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we develop a much better understanding of their life and their needs. This leads to more creative, life-improving, problem solving.

In the study by Helen Demetriou and Bill Nicholl already mentioned, Design and Technology pupils at two inner-London schools were observed over two years. The researchers showed that ‘teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise and see from the point of view of others measurably improves their creativity.’ In this study teenagers were shown footage of young children with asthma struggling to use inhalers and were encouraged to understand how that would feel and in response developed animal inhaler masks which are now being used by the NHS to reassure and engage children in their own health management.

Many of the schools we work with at EmpathyLab have used fiction to introduce pupils to the challenges faced by refugees, then developed their understanding through activities which help them see from the perspective of people fleeing their homeland and arriving in a strange new country. In one school, children followed up their work by writing letters of welcome sent to refugee organisations. One pupil fed back “I used to think refugees were different from us. Now I don’t.” Layla, aged 10, Great Yarmouth (EmpathyLab, 2018).

Empathy Lab’s creative approaches

At Empathy Lab, we are harnessing the connection between empathy and creativity by:

  • Supporting teachers to develop children’s inquisitiveness about empathy in stories. Inspired by the work of Aidan Chambers, we’re encouraging children to be curious about characters, to understand that there are no right or wrong answers and that characters like real people have nuanced motivations.
  • Encouraging children to use their imagination to inhabit the characters and take them beyond the story. Activities include children writing letters or diaries from characters’ viewpoints and dramatising imagined scenes or dialogues.

And does it work?

Evaluation of our school programmes is providing clear evidence of the impact that the combination of creativity and empathy can have to engage children and change thinking.

‘If everyone used their empathy skills the world would be better because there wouldn’t be any more bullies because the bullies would know how people feel when they bully them.’ Pupil, Brynhyfryd Primary School (EmpathyLab, 2020).

‘All our children can talk about empathy; how others feel, how their actions make others feel, and what it is like to stand in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is embedded in our school’s culture and is an everyday topic of conversation’ John Dalziel, Chair of Governors, St Michaels Primary (EmpathyLab,2018).

Empathy is the skill that allows us to connect, challenges our tribal thinking and makes us think ‘we not me.’ Creativity enriches empathy and creative thinking is boosted when underpinned by empathy practices. Working together, empathy and creativity transform lives.

EmpathyLab, an organisation seeking to build children's empathy, literacy, and social activism through a systematic use of high-quality literature. Empathy Day 2022 will be on 9 June.

For further reading:

Chambers, A (2011) Children, Reading and Talk, Thimble Press

EmpathyLab, Report on EmpathyLab’s Education Programme in Wales 2019-2020, EmpathyLab, September 2020

EmpathyLab, Pioneer Schools Evaluation Report 2016 - 2018, EmpathyLab, 2018

Mar, R.A. & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173–192

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