Contagious Empathy

Looking up from our screens and going for a walk may be our salvation

Our faces are buried, and I don’t mean in the sand. They’re snuggled into our machines these days as we scroll and click and finger type away. We travel into virtual lands, disconnecting from the three-dimensional one around us. I worry that we’re no longer able to walk in this world and communicate with each other one-on-one. I worry that we no longer understand how to be alone. And being alone and lonely and bored is important to us as creative people.

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” (Of course, he had his mother do his laundry for him while living on Walden Pond, so we have to take the simplicity of his enthusiasm with a bit of an eye squint.) Standing up to live can be difficult. It takes time and energy and an ability to see beyond ourselves. An essential part of the process is cultivating empathy. Only through living outside of ourselves can we be at our best as writers, whose job is to capture and translate humans, creatures, and details of the lived world onto the page.

As a writer you must transform language and yourself. This personal, internal transformation is as crucial to your work as is the actual writing of words.

Let’s look at the simple act of walking as the first means of transformation. It was Stanford professor Daniel Schwartz’s habit to walk around campus with his mentees as they discussed projects. And, as one of those mentees, Dr. Marily Oppezzo, put it, “One day we got kind of meta.” In 2014 the pair published a groundbreaking set of studies that look, possibly for the first time, at the connection between walking and creativity.

Oppezzo talked with Dave Teersteeg from the The Roadhouse arts and culture radio show about her article “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking,” published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

She noted that in one of the studies, participants were given the words button, tire, and newspaper and allotted four minutes to be creative with them. Then, one-third of the group walked on a treadmill for four minutes while brainstorming, another group walked for four minutes then sat and brainstormed, and the third group sat still for four minutes before trying the task again. The people who walked or walked and sat doubled their capacity to creatively brainstorm. Oppezzo suspects walking helps dampen down the filter that normally tells our brains “that’s not worth thinking about.”

The findings show that walking helps specifically with brainstorming, with creativity. A surprising aspect of the results was that participants could walk on the worst treadmill, staring at a blank wall, and something good still happened in their brains. The expanded creativity from the four-minute walk continued for eight minutes after each walking session.

Ferris Jabr’s September 2014 New Yorker article, “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” examines how strolling helps our state of mind: “Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion.”

Researchers have begun to take an interest in where people walk, as well. For example, studies suggest that a walk in green space can replenish brain power that human-made environments deplete. Jabr notes that “psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day.” Being in nature replenishes our ability to perceive, to participate. It helps us connect.

Of course, before psychologists realized this, writers knew it. Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. Even Jack Kerouac, in his rambling way:

I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.

(The Dharma Bums)

A study published in 2015 by Gregory Bratman at Stanford University shows that there is something to walking in an untamed environment. It wards off “rumination,” which is a specific psychological term that means our tendency to dwell on negative, self-referential thoughts in a circular, obsessive fashion.

Bratman’s study focused on city dwellers. Half the participants walked for ninety minutes through a “grassland with scattered oaks and native shrubs. . . . Views include[d] neighboring, scenic hills, and distant views of the San Francisco Bay.” The other half walked El Camino Real, a wide, traffic-clogged street in Palo Alto.

The nature walkers reported less rumination, and their brains showed increased activity. The urban walkers showed no such improvements.

Walking in nature hasn’t been scientifically connected to increased creativity, but instead to better well-being. For me, walking in nature that I don’t yet understand—the High Plains of Wyoming, the Florida Keys, the Ozarks—has helped my own observation skills and opened up my imagination.

It’s a great argument for writing residencies or visiting state or national parks. And, of course, this is what the Romantic poets were shooting for all along: imagination, nature. It was nothing for William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy to walk twelve miles in a day.

As Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the Romantics are often credited with making walking a cultural act. Partly, that has to do with the fact that, as easier transportation and better infrastructure arose in the late eighteenth century and people were no longer forced to walk, they could choose to walk. Thus, the idea of taking a walk for walking’s sake was born. English essayist Thomas de Quincey wrote:

I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles—a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of alcohol and other stimulants whatsoever to animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.

Of course, William incorporated the act of walking into his work. In “Sweet Was the Walk,” he evokes the pleasures of a mid-day stroll:

Sweet was the walk along the narrow lane
At noon, the bank and hedge-rows all the way
Shagged with wild pale green tufts of fragrant hay,
Caught by the hawthorns from the loaded wain,
Which Age with many a slow stoop strove to gain; . . .

And his sister, Dorothy, detailed many exhilarating walks with her brother in her journals. In October 1800, “There was a most lovely combination at the head of the vale—of the yellow autumnal hills wrapped in sunshine, and overhung with partial mists, the green and yellow trees and the snow-topped mountains. It was a most heavenly morning.”

Many writers also find release walking through cityscapes. Walt Whitman is always walking through the city. “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” he tells us of his walks, and “I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it.” Baudelaire walked through Paris, conceptualizing the flâneur, the wanderer, connoisseur of the street.

Virginia Woolf made up To the Lighthouse while walking through Tavistock Square, and Mrs. Dalloway is all about walking, which literally connects the characters. (There is a London tour you can take that follows Woolf’s walks, based on notes she wrote in her journals.) Joyce is Dublin; Ben Lerner’s dense prose merges him as a character with the living, breathing city around him.

Too, walking through places with people in them makes us imagine the experiences of others in a way walking through nature doesn’t. The writer Jolene McIlwain told me of an exercise that she tried a few years ago. She set one simple goal: to make eye contact with one person involved in the altercation every time she saw a domestic dispute. But, she told me, the exercise changed her. She started to see things from another point of view, a view with which she radically disagreed.

Prior to making a conscious effort to meet their eyes, I would always look away from those situations, and I told myself it was because I didn’t want to judge or didn’t want a confrontation. But really it was more about wanting to write my own narrative. If I opened up my eyes (my brain and my heart) I’d have to accept that there were other parallel narratives that could be happening.

She says she soon saw a connection with her own drafting process. “I get the action down and then it takes me multiple drafts to unpack the feelings behind those actions, the narrative behind the actions. And sometimes if I get the actions and thoughts down, I don’t linger there long enough. It’s like I’m at the store, I see the fight start, I observe for a few milliseconds, then I duck into the next aisle and act like I’m looking for Advil.”

In this empathy exercise, McIlwain learned that she needed to make eye contact and hold it until another person saw her seeing them. She needed to get to a place where she felt uncomfortable and challenged and—for lack of a better word—alive. And then she needed to take that same feeling into her writing.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes: “The best moments in our lives . . . are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . . The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” He calls this state of being flow.

For a story to be great, Stephen King says, it must have two elements: drama and empathy. It’s important to remember empathy is not about judging; it’s about observing without prejudice. It isn’t sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sad that Bambi’s mother is killed by the bad hunters. Empathy is trying to understand the motives and feelings of the hunters and the doe and Bambi himself as the scene unfolds.

Empathy can be cultivated. In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald recounts how training a goshawk helped her overcome intense grief at the sudden death of her father. In part, she survives by losing herself in the hawk. She felt in some ways that she became the hawk:

I started to see the city through [Mabel’s] eyes. . . . I would come out and stare at what was going on and it would baffle me. I’d wonder what a bus was. Why is that woman throwing a ball for her dog — why would you do that? The whole city became very odd. Later, when the hawk began to fly free and hunt her own food, I really felt that I wasn’t a person anymore. . . . I became this feral creature covered in mud and blood and thorn scratches. I didn’t wash my hair. I was a mess, but it was an incredibly good way of forgetting that I was miserable.  

 Electric Literature interview.

First, though, Macdonald had to be open to that empathy and to understanding and analyzing it. “It’s what the poet Wordsworth would have called joy — joy and wonder. That’s at the heart of what I love about the natural world. If you’re receptive to it, it does something to human minds that nothing else can do.”

People practice deep empathy in surprising ways. The immersive writer and performance artist Thomas Thwaites tried to turn himself into an animal.

As Joshua Rothman tells the story in the New Yorker, in 2013 Thwaites “was semi-employed and living with his dad.” He thought about how much simpler it would be to be an animal. He got a grant and he headed off to determine what animal he would like to become. After dismissing many options—including elephants because they were too smart, big, and strong—he visited a shaman. There, Thwaites remembered that as a child he had tried to eat a houseplant.

The shaman told him that in a cave in France, there was a thirty-thousand-year-old painting of a human-bison hybrid. But he eventually settled on a goat. As Thwaites writes in GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human: “Really, to want to become a goat is pretty standard. In fact, historically speaking, it’s almost odder to not want to become a goat.”

Thwaites began reading Heidegger and became convinced that to really live the life of a goat, he would need to goatishly interact with the world around him. He had protheses built so he could walk on all fours, and he decided to eat grass—though since humans can’t digest grass, he stewed it over a campfire with a pressure cooker at night after chewing it and spitting it into a receptacle during the day.

As Thwaites began to eat the grass, he noticed “the subtleties of the different types of grass: the blue-green patches of grass are bitter, whereas the greener-green grass is sweet and much preferable.” He was a goat for three days. Although brief, during his immersion he started to forget himself. He hung out with the other goats. They all did some sniffing. Apparently goat No. 18 took a shine to him. The goat farmer believed Thwaites was “accepted by the herd.”

Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce and Mary Oliver and Percival Everett. All to a greater or lesser degree tried to get into what an animal is—its essence—in order to explore greater emotional complexities of humans. Writers live on the streets or take on different occupations or ride along in police cars so they can experience the world from a new perspective—be changed—and then relay that emotional and physical experience onto the page.

In 1931, the Brazilian architect and artist Flávio de Carvalho donned a green velvet hat and walked against the flow of a Corpus Christi procession in São Paulo. It was a kind of wandering with purpose, which caused an uproar because the crowd perceived the hat-wearing, upstream act as irreverent. He called it “Experiencia N.2”—simultaneously a performance and a sacrilegious revolutionary act.

What he did—walking against the flow of people while wearing a forbidden hat—became something larger. His provocative multi-disciplinary art projects created a conversation with other Brazilian artists interested in creative revolutionary acts. Together they became the Brazilian modern movement and influenced group art actions in Brazil and the United States.

More recently, a student named Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress around Columbia University in 2014 and 2015. The action, which she called “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” served as her senior thesis and as a protest against rape on campus. It stemmed from what Sulkowicz alleges was her own rape by a fellow student, whom a university disciplinary panel ultimately declared “not responsible.” Her walking with her mattress created a kind of extended empathy, something that expanded beyond her to greater issues. The act itself seems mundane, but when put into a context is charged and draws in others who feel oppressed or harmed in a similar way. The act became contagious: other students joined in the effort by helping Sulkowicz carry her mattress, and students carried mattresses across campuses nationwide in solidarity.

We can see this same sort of extended empathy with the Black Lives Matter movement when groups of people put their hands up in a “don’t shoot” gesture. It’s a simple physical movement, but when put into the context of our time it becomes charged and opens up physical expression. When others repeat it, they feel the moment of the falsely accused, as well as the existence of the revolutionary movement.

As large groups not connected to a specific inciting event become infected by the event, a kind of contagious empathy arises, and a larger understanding of what it means to be human right now forms.

It’s our job as writers to mine such moments and events for meaning and cultural context. It’s our job to radically empathize with these symbolic gestures and understand them better than the next person.

As we do this, our empathy becomes more sophisticated and more effective, and it’s contagious, too—it spreads to our readers. It’s a circular phenomenon. We need to practice empathizing in order to understand empathy in order to write so that our readers experience empathy on the page. It can’t be imitated. It needs to be experienced and practiced, physically, like walking. It’s all connected.

We need to walk around in and observe and reflect and write about the world around us. Let’s become the flâneurs of our time. In doing so we will redefine our creative process, inside and out. It is time to put down our phones and cultivate a fresh new creativity that involves the body, the mind, and—only then—our computer keyboards.

About the Author

Sherrie FlickSmaller
Sherrie Flick

Sherrie Flick’s nonfiction has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Post GazetteSuperstition Review, and Pittsburgh Quarterly, among others. Her book of narrative nonfiction exploring place and displacement in Pittsburgh will be published by In Fact Books in fall 2018.

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