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Fighting the Empathy Deficit: How the Arts Can Make Us More Compassionate

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An etching by Hans Beham Depicting the return of the prodigal son (Cantor Arts Center)

Stanford University’s Jane Shaw is a kind of empathy activist.

“How do you make the leap,” she said a few days ago, “to understand the experience of another person is really what empathy’s about.

Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life, was showing me around a small-but-choice exhibit called Empathy, at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center.

Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University
Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University (Courtesy: Jane Shaw)

The show is a companion piece to a class on empathy Shaw is teaching this fall, and a way for any museum goer to engage with a hot topic these days for religious scholars, neuroscientists, artists and politicians.


Everyone from President Barack Obama to social psychologists are reporting a deficit in empathy and or a lack of compassion among college students, and a corresponding rise in narcissism.

“We live in a pretty individualistic society,” Shaw said, “It’s all about the selfie… which is me, me, me, right?”

But Bay Area residents have a surprising number of ways to refresh their empathy skills through the arts, including Shaw’s exhibit.

There’s a pair of Diane Arbus photos: one of a tattooed man and another of female impersonator that Shaw notes raise issues about “the difference between objectifying the strange, and empathizing with the strange.”

The key images in the show may be a series of four etchings by Hans Beham, based on Jesus’ parable about the Prodigal Son.

The parable describes how the younger of two sons demands his inheritance, wastes it in wild living, then returns home, expecting to be punished. To his and his older brother’s surprise, the father greets the prodigal with open arms.

“I think the prodigal son story is important,” Shaw said, “because at different times we can all relate to all of the characters.

“Are we the father distraught by the son who’s gone off, and just unbelievably thrilled that the younger son has come home?” Shaw asks. “Or are we the older son who’s been good and dutiful, then when the younger son comes back, he’s the one who gets the fatted calf for him?”

The point, Shaw says, is not to judge, but to empathize — to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

That’s an apt metaphor for the actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith, who’ll be a guest lecturer for Shaw’s class. Smith is known for her documentary theater work about class and race, in which she embodies the words and physical tics of the people she interviews. She often works barefoot so she can better “walk in the words,” she says, “of her subjects.”

It’s a sign of the power of art, especially theater, to inspire empathy.

In fact Shaw’s class made me think about the preshow welcome I’ve often heard from Bill English, Artistic Director for San Francisco Playhouse.

“We like to think of ourselves as our community’s empathy gym,” is how Bill English opened a recent performance. “It’s a place where we come to work out our powers of compassion.

San Francisco Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English and Executive Director Susi Damilano
San Francisco Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English and Executive Director Susi Damilano (Courtesy San Francisco Playhouse)

“We identify with these actors up here. And we feel what they feel, we love what they love, and we hope what they hope for.  And it’s our belief we can take that spirit of unity that we build together in the dark, out into the streets, and make our world a better place one play at a time.”

A comment that draws both laughs and applause for its heartfelt idealism.

The funny thing is when English talks about theater as an empathy gym, he sounds like Jamil Zaki, a Stanford professor and neuropsychologist doing research on empathy using new tools like brain scans from an MRI.

“I think of lots of different forms of art as empathy boot camp,” Zaki said.

A few years ago Zaki looked at that research showing that college students are less empathetic today than 30 years ago.

“It’s a lot easier to insult someone in a YouTube comment section when you’re anonymous and they’re anonymous, and you don’t have to see their reaction, than when you’re right in front of them,” Zaki said.

“The arts act as an antidote to that estrangement,” Zaki added, “[and] provide you with a very low risk way of entering worlds and lives and minds that are far from what you would normally experience.”

One study found that reading literature, but not junk fiction, increases a person’s ability to be empathetic.  Though Zaki wondered “does reading make you more empathetic, or does being more empathetic make you want to read more fiction?”

People, and some animals, come into the world ready for empathy, because we’re born with what are called mirror neurons. And Zaki believes the arts can stimulate those neurons.

“So if you see a painting of someone being whipped,” Zaki said. “Or they’re weeping profusely. Then you take on that state. I’m sure that applies to visual art. I’m absolutely sure it applies to performance art where they’re actually posing expressions and experiencing things in front of you.”

Zaki said he had that experience when he and his research team, took in the Pixar film “Inside Out.”

The movie gives voice to the turbulent emotional life of a young girl whose parents move to San Francisco so her dad can join a startup.

Zaki said he made a connection he didn’t expect, because he and his wife are about to have a daughter.

“And I’m thinking about that little girl (in the movie) and her connection to her parents,” Zaki said. “I felt I connected with that at a much deeper level, than I would have before when we didn’t know we were having a kid. ”

That’s an easy form of empathy for us, Zaki said.  But people can make far greater empathetic leaps.

“Empathy is often work,” said Zaki. “It’s an effort that we make to find the commonalities between yourself and someone else.”

That’s something University of San Francisco theater professor Christine Young observed when she used to teach in Iowa. She’d assign her students Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America, about the AIDS crisis, a gay Mormon, and many other things.

“And the same thing would happen every time,” she said. “Many of the students who had come from a conservative Christian background would initially object to the subject matter.”

But Young says, people would come to empathize with the struggles of the character of Louis, who abandons his lover when he learns he has AIDS.

“That’s one of the great gifts of that play is it helped a whole generation of people realize that the lives of gay people are just like the lives of heterosexual people. That the loss of a loved one is the same no matter who they are,” Young said.

And that sense that we’re all connected in some way is what Stanford’s Jane Shaw hopes to explore in her her empathy class and exhibit.

“The world’s problems,” Shaw said, “the world’s wars are because we don’t understand each other. So the more we can understand each other the better. The more we can step into each other’s shoes the better.”


The Cantor Arts Center show, Empathy, continues through Jan. 25. Anna Deveare Smith does her residency as Stanford in October.

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