The Empathy of Storytelling: Knowing Your Donors and Recipients

Not all stories are created equal. Or, rather, not all stories are received equally. We connect most with stories which sound (and feel!) a tad bit familiar to our own.

Generally speaking, we call this empathy.

Imitation is a key concept involved in the process of empathy, though it is sometimes also known as motor mimicry. It refers to your brain’s capacity to match the patterns of neural activity as perceived in another individual.

In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, Jean Decety writes,

“Imitation is, in essence, the bridge leading to empathy. Indeed, developmental research indicates that we are hardwired for imitation with our conspecifics, and that such a mechanism is the stepping-stone to intersubjectivity.” (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003).

Imitation is closely tied to the experience of empathy because both require some level of perceived self in the other person.

In other words, imitation is largely subject to the degree of “oneness” that the imitator believes they share with another person. The greater the degree of perceived oneness, the greater the potential for empathic concern.

Imitation depends on the wide range of emotions and experiences specific to each person. As a result, people possess differing capacities for demonstrating empathy. Essentially, no two neurological responses are the same.

A subset of neurons, known as mirror motor neurons which exist in the premotor portion of the brain’s prefrontal cortex play a key role in imitation and, subsequently, empathy.

Studies show that as you observe another person perform a goal-specific action, those premotor mirror neurons fire action potentials as if you were preparing to do the task yourself. Some people will experience high levels of matched neural activity while others may exhibit little to no matched neural response at all depending on the particular conditions of the interaction.

A great story, however, will know its audience and thus know how to connect with them. It will shape the very lens through which they perceive and act upon the world.

(This is why Mythos tags exist and why individually relevant stories are so important.)

A barrage of presented facts, however, is more likely to pass through their mind like a slight breeze, leaving everything ultimately undisturbed.

To really drive a point home, enwrap it in the welcoming robes of a story. Then sit back, relax, and let those empathetic neurons do their magic.

About the Author

Lindsay Isler

Lindsay is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a Bachelor’s in English Literature.