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Jun 15, 2015

How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Empathy

Have you ever wondered why great writing creates an emotional response in readers? Welcome to another guest segment where I pick the brain of a neuroscientist.


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Research scientist Michael Grybko — of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington — returned to the show to help me define empathy from a scientific standpoint.

Mr. Grybko sheds some light into the darker corners of our understanding of how to tap into the hopes, dreams, and fears of your readers.

If you missed the first installment of The Writer s Brain you can find it here:
How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Creativity

In this file Michael Grybko and I discuss:

  • How Science is Changing Our Definition of Empathy
  • Why Pathos is a Good Jumping Off Place for Writers
  • What Actors and Doctors Have in Common with Writers
  • Are Mirror Systems the Key to Human Empathy?
  • How to Resist the Dark Side of Empathy
  • The Difference Between Good Storytelling and Great Storytelling
  • Why Writers Need to Crawl Inside the Heads of Their Audience
  • How Marketers Tap into Well-Worn Paths in Our Brains
  • The Key to Empathizing with Your Readers
  • Why Great Marketing Starts with the Desire to Help People

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Empathy

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.

I’m your host, Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.

Welcome to another guest segment where I pick the brain of a neuroscientist.

Have you ever wondered why great writing creates an emotional response in readers? Research scientist Michael Grybko of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington returned to the show to help me define empathy from a scientific standpoint. He’ll shed some light into the darker corners of our understanding of how to tap into the hopes, dreams, and fears of your readers.

If you missed the first installment of The Writer’s Brain: How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Creativity, you can find it at WriterFiles.FM and on iTunes.

In this episode, we’ll discuss how science is changing our definition of empathy, what actors and doctors have in common with writers, how to resist the dark side of empathy, the difference between good storytelling and great storytelling, and why writers need to crawl inside the heads of their audience.

Mr. Grybko, welcome back to The Writer Files. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me about empathy.

Michael Grybko: Thank you for inviting me back. Happy to be here.

How Science Is Changing Our Definition of Empathy

Kelton Reid: Empathy definitely comes up a lot when we’re talking about how about effective writing of any discipline, and I’ll start with a quote from Mark Twain, who said, “The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of this tale and their fate.” I think he’s talking about empathy for sure.

Michael Grybko: Yeah.

Kelton Reid: It may not be called empathy in particular in fiction writing, but empathy really is — at least part of the definition is — a study in understanding and entering into another person s feelings, inhabiting their feelings. This is definitely what great writers strive for of all disciplines. I think we should start out by looking at some of the definitions from a psychological perspective, at least, so that we can get into that neuroscience piece.

Let me start with Oxford English Dictionary’s take from the psychological theory of Lasswitz: essentially, a physical property of the nervous system analogous to essentially the electrical capacity or believed to be correlated with feeling. Now, I have no idea what that means.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, that’s a little vague to me, too. But what we’re starting to do is we’re starting to link that empathy has something to do with the brain, basically.

Kelton Reid: So that’s what electrical capacity means in the nervous system, okay. In psychology and aesthetics, we have a definition that says the quality or power projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation and so fully understanding or appreciating it. That sounds closer to a layman’s definition of empathy.

Finally, that psychological definition is the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings and experience.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, and I think that one’s probably the most concise and hits the nail on the head, there. I think all these definitions are good and acceptable, interesting. But now, things are changing a little with neuroscience, because now that neuroscience is involved, we’re really looking at the brain activity and what’s going on in the brain, and what’s the neurological kind of correlates for the empathy.

One of the things I think is really interesting is that empathy has been recognized for a long time. Long before neuroscientists really started looking at empathy, humans have recognized empathy and its power and its effects. It s kind of funny, it’s one of these situations where scientists may be finally recognizing and catching up with what everyone else knew for a long time. But what’s interesting now is that we’re starting to understand how the brain works in regards to empathy, so we can start studying it and start understanding some of the deficits and problems with it as well.

It’s really interesting. This goes back a long time — your reference to pathos.

Why Pathos Is a Good Jumping-off Place for Writers

Kelton Reid: Well, let’s talk about that for a second. I think pathos is a good starting place, for at least for writers, because writers and online publishers or marketers, we talk about empathy a lot as the ability to get inside the head of your audience or customers or your readers.

Just to go back a step here, I love Eugene Schwartz. He’s this copyrighting guru of yore, but his book Breakthrough Advertising talks a lot about this and about the importance for copywriters to possess sensitivity, foresight, and intuition. We’re all saying the same things, and this was written decades ago, but these are the ability of writers to really tap into people’s hopes, dreams, and fears, and pathos is something that’s been around forever. It’s that technique using rhetoric that writers employ, and many people employ in all disciplines, to inform, persuade, and motivate the audience to feel something, right?

Michael Grybko: Right. Yeah, and that reference to pathos — was that Aristotle? It goes back that far?

Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely.

What Actors and Doctors Have in Common with Writers

Michael Grybko: And this idea of the concept of emotional appeal — this can be seen in acting. This is what we’re getting at when actors are encouraged to connect with their audience. And what they’re really trying to do here is, is the audience able to empathize with the actor? The more the audience can empathize the actor, the more connected and probably the better the performance, and the more the audience gets out of the performance.

Also, I think another example is doctors. They ve often been encouraged to empathize with their patients. You hear about doctors having good bedside manner. I think this is what they’re getting at.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Michael Grybko: So yeah, it’s been around a long time. Only for the past few decades have we really been studying empathy at the neuroscience level. From the neuroscience perspective, the definition has evolved a bit now. One of the key components of empathy, from a neuroscientist viewpoint, is that there are these overlapping brain regions between a subject and observer. So there’s areas that are active whether we observe an individual going through some emotional state or performing some kind of task, or we do that task and go through that emotion ourselves.

Are Mirror Systems the Key to Human Empathy?

Kelton Reid: Are you now referring to the mirror neuron? I’m not sure what the terminology is from the neuroscience perspective, but that kind of mirror effect?

Michael Grybko: Yeah, neuroscientists generally referred to mirror systems, and there’s also mirror neurons. Mirror neurons you hear a lot about. It s become a popular term. But this is a really a specific set of neurons. I ll go into some of the history here, if you want me to?

Kelton Reid: Yeah, sure. I’d love that.

Michael Grybko: So, I ll share the background and clear up a little confusion. I’ll start off with the discovery of mirror neurons, because that’s what launched the whole idea of empathy and showing that it’s a product or a consequence of neuronal activity.

This was a serendipitously discovered phenomenon. A group in Italy, led by Rizzolatti, was doing some work in the motor cortex of monkeys. This was done in the early 90s. They found a group of neurons that were active when the individual performed an action or observed a similar action being performed. Strictly speaking, these are the only true motor neurons that have been classified.

Now, most work being done on mirroring and empathy in the brain is done in humans, and we use fMRI. This is something we talked about a little bit in our previous discussion about creativity, this fMRI technique.

There’s some limitations to this technique, and the main one is that we are measuring blood flow in the brain. When neurons increase activity, they require more blood. Therefore, we correlate and increase blood flow to a certain area of the brain with increased neuronal activity. But we don’t have the resolution to say whether a specific group of neurons is active. If you are comparing two individuals, one performing and action and one observing one, we can tell if similar areas of the brain are active, but not specific neurons within those areas. For this reason, we usually don’t use the term mirror neurons. We refer to these as mirror areas or mirror systems.

Kelton Reid: Gotcha.

Michael Grybko: Just for specificity, we really can’t tell if specific neurons are active. The initial work, finding the mirror neurons and the monkeys, really opened the floodgates to this type of research and provided a lot of answers to a lot of the questions neuroscientists have been asking.

Continuing this idea of mirror systems, some cool work was done with just touch. So this is another area where we see mirroring. Good examples of this are if you are watching a movie and see a spider crawling up someone s arm or a snake slithering down someone s shirt, and you get the heebie-jeebies. That’s a similar system. You can actually feel that.

Some work done by Tania Singer, who is now at Max Planck in Germany, showed that there are overlapping brain areas active whether we experience physical pain or are observing someone else’s pain. She took individuals, put them in an MRI, and gave them brief shock to their hand. Nothing too painful, but just enough, like a pin prick. She observed what brain areas were active. She kept the same individual in the fMRI, and she recorded the brain areas activated. This time, the individual was observing the expression of a loved one experiencing the same stimulus.

Interestingly, they found some of the same brain areas were engaged, whether individuals were actively sensing the pain or observing someone else’s reaction to the pain. This was also done again. There’s another study with a feather duster, with similar results. Similar brain activity was seen whether someone felt a feather duster rubbing up against their leg or watched a video of someone having the feather duster rubbed up against their leg.

This is still touch and physical mirroring. Most people think about mirroring behavior, and most people think about emotional empathy. There’s usually some component that this leads to humanitarianism behavior. Empathy is the driving force that s pushing us to help individuals in distress and do good things.

Kelton Reid: Philanthropy.

How to Resist the Dark Side of Empathy

Michael Grybko: Yeah, exactly. Although this is true, and this is an effect of empathy, there are some not-so-flattering effects as well. We also empathize anger, stress, and anxiety. Those can have some real bad implications. Empathy gone too far, even positive empathy and love for others, can lead to cronyism and nepotism. If you think of individuals who may be willing to hurt others to help the people that are close to them, and they’re empathizing with the people that are very close to them, they will harm others.

A good example of this is some corporate corruption. One of the examples that came to mind was Bernie Madoff, where he was defrauding all these people, yet he had his sons and his family incorporated into his company and he’s really taking care of them. A lot of people are like, Bernie Madoff — how could he do this? He must have no soul. He must not be able to empathize. In fact, he was empathizing, just so strongly with his family that he was willing to hurt other people.

Kelton Reid: Interesting. Almost sounds like a cult.

Michael Grybko: Yeah. I think there is a lot of that in some of these darker sides of humanity, where we can almost over-empathize with the wrong people.

Kelton Reid: Choose who you empathize with. It’s kind of like the force. Don’t go to the dark side.

Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

The Difference between Good Storytelling and Great Storytelling

Kelton Reid: This is all really fascinating stuff, and I can’t help but turn to storytelling. I know we re not covering storytelling in this episode, but good storytelling is really utilizing empathy.

Michael Grybko: I think so, yeah.

Kelton Reid: Great storytelling is probably activating some mirror systems. In a sense, what’s one of the takeaways for writers about realizing that the empathy really comes from the other side?

Michael Grybko: Right. The key here is that the observer is the one empathizing, so the person reading — your audience — they are the ones that are empathizing with the character or the story. The key is, you want a believable character, or at least their emotions and their reactions to be believable and familiar to the audience.

Kelton Reid: This is what great storytelling does. It really taps into that. I guess as online publishers, we really are all storytellers. I keep saying storytelling because it s an important piece in the empathy discussion.

Why Writers Need to Crawl inside the Heads of Their Audience

Kelton Reid: Let’s turn for a second to online marketing and online content creation. I know I pointed you towards this piece that Demian Farnworth did called Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head. He’s echoing the sentiments that I had noted before by Eugene Schwartz.

I’ll just pull a quote from out of there: “We all need to know our customers in order to create products that they will actually buy. It doesn t start with the product. It starts with the customer. That means the media you create, be it a podcast, a blog post, a story, an ad, a screenplay, these all contribute to attracting that audience, and as your audience grows you learn more about their needs, wants, hopes, and fears.”

I am paraphrasing here, but can empathy help writers of any discipline understand and get inside the heads of their audience and their hopes, dreams, and fears? That s a pretty simple, straightforward way of putting it.

Michael Grybko: Again, I think we have to realize what I said before. The observers are the ones empathizing. A marketer trying to empathize with his or her target audience would be really difficult. I think in the Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head, this is sort of addressed, the difficulty with this. It’s really important to, as is brought up, to research and know your audience. The more research you can do, the better you know the audience, the more likely you ll be to write a convincing story or come up with good characters and contact and make some sort of emotional contact with your audience.

Kelton Reid: Right. That emotional piece is key. One of the facts in there was that these emotional ads outsell informational ones by 20 percent or something.

How Marketers Tap into Well-Worn Paths in Our Brains

Michael Grybko: Right. I saw that. There’s some research showing that emotional ads, or ads which cause an emotional response in the audience, were much more successful that ads that didn’t. This really isn’t the marketers empathizing with the customer. It’s the customer empathizing with the character in the story that the marketers created to sell their product.

What’s going on here is more going back to memory, how we remember things and how we acquire knowledge, and this is something we talked about in our previous discussion about creativity, so I won’t go through all of it again.

There are a couple ways to do it. A few things influence the formation of long-term memories, and one of these is repetition — doing something over and over and over again. Another key component is weight, and a great way to add weight to a memory is by attaching emotion to it. I think what’s going on here is the audience is having an emotional response, and therefore, they are associating that emotional response with whatever product is being sold or marketed. Therefore, they are remembering it better. It’s helping consolidate that memory.

Kelton Reid: Those are well-worn pathways, in other words.

Michael Grybko: Yeah. It’s just creating a stronger memory. When you make an emotional response, if the audience is empathizing with the story line, they’ll just remember the product better or the content of that story better.

Kelton Reid: I was speaking with Adam Skolnick about these writing formulas and James Patterson’s MasterClass on writing, where he promises to teach writers how to write a bestseller. He’s clearly learned the formula. The guy has almost 100 bestsellers to his name. He’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, etc. There is a formula. Hollywood screenwriters are told there is a formula.

Copywriters are often working from formulas as well. Empathy’s a big piece of that. It’s almost like there are these well-worn pathways, because we have all been marketed to since birth essentially.

Michael Grybko: Sure, sure.

Kelton Reid: But so much of it is really about storytelling. I keep coming back to that, good storytelling.

Michael Grybko: Right. I think it comes down to almost manipulating your audience. A good marketer — or a storyteller, or writer, screenwriter, play writer — knows how to get to their audience and knows how to write a character or a story in which the audience will connect through empathy.

Kelton Reid: That brings us full-circle back to that definition of pathos, which is pretty apropos. How can writers of any discipline empathize better?

The Key to Empathizing with Your Readers

Michael Grybko: It would be hard to really empathize, so I think it comes down to doing research to empathize with your audience, unless you re taking the time to really sit down and connect one-on-one with your target audience. If writers are willing to do that, to go that far, then they can start empathizing.

You’re empathizing when your emotional response is the same as the person you’re observing. If the marketer or writer is actually getting angry because of something that upset their audience, getting sad because of something, some grief the audience is experiencing, then they’re empathizing.

Why Great Marketing Starts with the Desire to Help People

Kelton Reid: It s really interesting that you say that, because I think some of best online marketers and online content creators are part of their target market.

Michael Grybko: Yeah. That’s a great way. If you’re marketing, sell it to yourself first. Maybe that’s a good way to start.

Kelton Reid: You probably are coming up with a solution to a problem that you had.

Michael Grybko: Right. Exactly. Is this something that s causing you some distress? Are you solving a problem? Is this something that is going to make your life easier? Save some time?

Kelton Reid: No. That’s the good side of the force and the empathy piece. You’re not really manipulating people. You are helping people, and you re empathizing with their struggle hopefully.

Michael Grybko: Right. Depends what you re selling.

Kelton Reid: Right. Well that is really fantastic. I guess my next question is, where do we go from here? How can we take what we have learned about creativity and empathy and look at the next piece in the neuroscience? What I want to say is, under the microscope, what’s the next piece to look at for writers?

Michael Grybko: Okay. That’s a good question.

Kelton Reid: Would it be storytelling? We keep coming back to it.

Michael Grybko: Storytelling. Yes, I think so. What neuroscientists are looking at now are the consequences of empathy, and it s an incredibly complicated area to study. One of the problems we are running into is when we are talking about emotional empathy, there s a lot of different brain areas involved, a lot of different neurochemicals and trying to find that. Where’s the root of empathy in the brain?

There are some good studies going on. I won’t go through all of it, but one of the major chemicals we are looking at is oxytocin, which has been thought of as the love hormone and norepinephrine is another one, and that’s the stress hormone. Neuroscientists now are looking deeper into these questions about consequences of empathy, looking at these more discrete structures, and trying to narrow down the chemicals involved and the areas involved.

What we’re finding is, our emotional states actually have a lot to do with our cognitive ability and have a huge influence on it. Certain aspects of cognition fluctuate as our emotional states fluctuate. Also, I think stress is another important one, and that’s something we are looking at quite a bit. We’re looking at a lot of work being done with mitigating stress and anxiety through use of meditation. We re going off into that.

I think all of this is important for writers, too, understanding that your audience is going to comprehend things differently depending on their emotional states, stress, anxiety, and depression. Neuroscience is trying to tease this out. It s really interesting, and I’ll have to keep you updated.

Kelton Reid: That’s great. I think we should ask those questions, and I would love to have you back to talk about both storytelling and the meditation piece, which is huge right now. I’m very curious about that. I think I read something recently that said that meditation has been shown to change the way your brain is working, so that is really curious to me.

Michael Grybko: Right. There’s a lot going on. Actually, Tania Singer — she did the pain study that I mentioned earlier — she’s doing a lot of that now. Now she’s getting deeper into the emotional pain, and she’s a big advocate of meditation. There’s an institute at Stanford that just opened, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, and they’re doing all sorts of stuff. Buddhists monks and things like that. Storytelling is obviously — as we kept on touching on the importance to have an emotional connection with the audience, the characters — really interesting as well.

Kelton Reid: Great.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, I would love to be back and discuss some more of these topics.

Kelton Reid: Fantastic. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day. I know you guys are getting crushed over there, but I really appreciate it, and we look forward to having you back.

Michael Grybko: All right. Thank you for having me. I will talk to you soon.

Kelton Reid: Stay curious my friends, and resist the dark side of empathy, if you can.

Thanks for joining me for a glimpse into the workings of the writer s brain. For more episodes of The Write Files, or to leave us a comment or a question, drop by WriterFiles.FM, and please subscribe to the shown in iTunes if you have not already. Leave us a rating or review, and help other writers to find us. You can find me on Twitter @KeltonReid.

Cheers. See you out there.