Untitled, Kusama Yayoi, 1967, oil on canvas. The John R. Derlip Fund, 2010.7. Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Art and empathy: Four thought leaders explain the connection

By Stephanie Curry //

In a fast-paced and divisive world, we can be quick to make judgments. In fact, we often make decisions based on biases or first impressions. At Mia, we believe that art has the power to open up our minds, introducing us to the stories of people across space and time. And that experiencing these stories helps us connect not only across cultural differences but also with ourselves—we better understand our shared values.

This is empathy, and we all have the capacity to be empathetic. But how and when we use this ability is a complex topic. How exactly is the trait wired in our brains? And how can we become more empathetic?

On May 12, we explored these questions with a panel of experts in Empathy Lab: Setting the Conditions for Empathy, a virtual program hosted by Mia’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts.

In anticipation of the event, we asked each speaker a few questions about their work on the topic and how art can increase our ability to be more empathetic individuals. You can learn more about Mia’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts and find research, resources, and related exhibitions here.

Karleen Gardner, Mia’s Director of Learning Innovation and the Center for Empathy & the Visual Arts

Tell us about the work you do and how that relates to empathy.

As an audience-centered institution, Mia values the various perspectives and knowledge of our diverse communities, and practices empathy by getting input and feedback through surveys, focus groups, and listening sessions. We ask ourselves and our visitors how we can create a more welcoming, inclusive environment in which people feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and open to new ideas. We embed this approach into the development of exhibitions, programs, and our gallery teaching practices.

How have you experienced the connection between empathy and art?

I believe that art inspires wonder and curiosity and connects us to something bigger than ourselves. I have always been interested in the impacts that art experiences can have on people—impacts or outcomes are changes in people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Art is an expression of the human condition and this medium allows and encourages us to experience the emotions and perspectives of other people past and present, including those of the artist who created it, the person/people depicted in the artwork, as well as those of the people you experience and discuss it with.

Sara Konrath, PhD, social psychologist and associate professor of Philanthropic Studies, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Tell us about the work you do and how that relates to empathy.

I’m an empathy scientist, so most of my research examines empathy and related behaviors. For example, I study changes in empathy over time, implications of empathy for the self and others, and I also develop and teach programs and workshops that teach empathy.

What impact do you think art can have on our ability to be empathetic?

Some of my research has examined this question. I’ve found that different kinds of arts engagement can help to build empathy for others. The arts can help to expand our minds and hearts so that we see our own and others’ worlds better.

Explore this list of interventions for generating empathy, suggestions from Sara that you can put into practice now to become more empathetic. 

Terry Wu, PhD, neuroscientist and founder of Why The Brain Follows

Tell us about the work you do and how that relates to empathy.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, I saw the failure of leadership at many levels. I started doing research on how to apply neuroscience to empower leaders. What I found is that the science of empathy is very complex.

We are born with an innate capacity to feel other people’s pain as if it is our own pain. But at the same time, we are very selective in whom we feel empathy towards. We feel very strong empathy towards those who we consider as “us,” but very little empathy towards those who we consider as “them.” For example, after the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers, how many Vikings fans feel the pain and agony of Packers fans? The opposite is true, too: the pain of one team’s fans is the joy of another team’s fans. This explains why empathy gaps exist among different groups, especially when one group holds negative opinions about another group. For leaders, it is important to develop tools to reduce the empathy gap based on science.

How do you think art impacts the way we make decisions?

As technologies and the pandemic are dehumanizing our social interactions, we are witnessing a sharp drop of empathy. People are very quick to blame, shame, and attack others while hiding behind the screens of various devices. Many people have become so insensitive to other people’s pain that they resort to fast, unconscious decisions when interacting with others. Technologies are depriving people of empathy.

Art can be a powerful way for us to gain a better understanding of human emotions and stories. It gives us a unique lens to look at artists’ inner worlds. It trains our brains to slow down and think more rationally, instead of emotionally. It restores our capacity to connect with others. Art plays a unique role in re-establishing humanity in this technology-dominated world.

Read this article from Terry about the connection between stress and empathy, including tips for reducing stress in order to become more compassionate.

Nate Garvis, founder of Naked Civics and co-founder of Studio/E

Tell us about the work you do and how that relates to empathy.

Naked Civics helps leaders and organizations successfully navigate a changing society by aligning community values directly into products, services. and other offerings that move our world forward. The core purpose is to advance the common good in a world where nearly everything is polarized, politicized and where multi-billion dollar political and media industries benefit from a model of keeping us all stuck and in a current state of pain, anger, and blame.   Feeling the pain of a stuck society and deeply desiring to compassionately move us beyond is foundational to the energy that I bring to the practice.

Have you experienced the connection between empathy and art? What has that looked like for you?

Art achieves its highest purpose when it brings me into a story greater than my own experience and I feel the power and energy of my subconscious empathy. Two years ago, I found myself in Madrid and decided to go to the Museo Reina Sofia. Of course I knew I would see Picasso’s Guernica there: I had seen the image hundreds of times and I knew the history of that terrible day at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Because of my familiarity with the piece, I did not expect much of an emotional hit. But when confronted with the scale of the work and the sharp, violent shapes of the figures and the bleak black and grays, I found myself weeping—actually sobbing—in front of it. The work brought me into the streets of that destroyed city of broken and torn-apart bodies as dive bombers repeatedly attacked in waves. The painting goes beyond just displaying the pain of warfare on civilians, it brings you into the shock of experiencing a type of warfare that had never been seen before. It may be trite to refer to such a famous painting, but there’s a reason for its renown. It reaches beyond the canvas and grabs you by the throat. I’m still haunted by it.