Empathy Through Vision and Movement

Empathy Through Vision and Movement

Empathy Through Vision and Movement

Imagining yourself moving can arouse emotion.

I seek peace in the early mornings as I walk past silent houses and dark, wet woods. One murky morning last week, frantic movement caught my eye. On the saturated ground, something was fluttering and flopping. The timing of the desperate bursts spoke of a living creature in distress. Even though I felt afraid, I went over to see. A small, brown bird had entangled itself in a black net with the consistency of chicken wire. As I watched, the wild thing struggled in spasms, its claws bound, its wings displaced. Every part of it looked dislocated or broken. Still, it fought.

A bird caught in a mist net
A bird caught in a mist net. Source: Júlio Reis, bird ringing (bird banding) sequence, Portugal, 23 May 2002, licensed under Creative Commons

I found myself raising the black net, shaking the mesh as I reeled it in. Someone had laid it to protect a young fig tree, but I cared for the bird more than the tree. Only when I lifted the net did the bird find its voice. Threatened by a giant, blunt-beaked predator, the sparrow screamed an alarm that could have alerted an immense flock. The more the bird fluttered, the more entrapped it seemed, but I kept gathering the net. If I had to, I would have chewed through the loops to set the sparrow free. With a few inches to go, I shook the net hard, and the bird shot off, still able to fly.

“That’s it,” I said. “There you go.”

I walked on.

I wondered, though, about how and why I had identified so intensely with that bird. In a global pandemic, the answer was obvious. Having lost friends, family, jobs, and the life we knew, 7.8 billion of us on this planet feel trapped. We fear for our lives, and we can’t fly.

But that’s just part of it. What drew me to the bird, before I knew it was a bird, was the way it moved. A solidarity connects living things, and without thinking, I was pulled toward life in distress. Since the mid-1990s, we have known about mirror activity, mediated by neurons in the motor cortex that become active both when they enable actions and when they are alerted by other neurons that a nearby animal is performing those same actions (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia). Apparently, mirror activity can cross species.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied. In the "Literature and the Senses" course that I teach, I ask students how writers use language to help readers imagine characters’ sensations, and with them, characters’ emotions. Fiction that encourages readers to imagine vivid worlds often prompts them to create mental imagery by “simulating,” or reactivating and recombining their own experiences to approximate and share characters’ experiences. “We represent other people’s minds using simulations of our own minds,” writes cognitive scientist Lawrence Barsalou (Barsalou 623).

When such simulation occurs, cortical regions where sensory activity is processed become active (Starr 278, 281, 286). With a perceptive eye, literary scholar Elaine Scarry has described techniques that fiction writers use to evoke visual imagery (Scarry). But imagined sensations can involve hearing, touch, smell, taste, or, most often, combinations of every sensory modality, as in lived experience. How does movement fit into this sensory array? Does the perceived or imagined movement of one’s body count as touch? As vision? Is imagined motion its own sensory modality?

Psychological studies of the past two decades suggest that when readers are immersed in realistic stories, they imagine themselves moving through space (Barsalou 629). Literary scholar G. Gabrielle Starr, who has collaborated with neuroscientists, points out the vital imaginative role of motor imagery (imagining one’s body moving in a specific way). Associated with vision, hearing, and touch, motor imagery has the ability to blend mental images in other modalities. “Motor images are involved in many kinds of imagery that appear primarily to belong to other senses,” writes Starr. “Equally, imagining motion often involves multiple kinds of imagery” (Starr 282). As soon as one imagines one’s body moving, one may see why motor imagery is “peculiarly multisensory” (Starr 289).

It is no news to dancers that watching bodies move can evoke powerful emotions. Seeing a fellow creature struggle differs from reading about a creature struggling, but in both cases, emotions may arise as one imagines one’s own body making the same movements. The emotion may become conscious whether or not the simulated motion does. And the creature need not be human. Life in distress calls out to other life.

In this time of death and despair, it encourages me that the instinctive bonds among living creatures still hold. The link between “motion” and “emotion” is more than verbal, and the desperate fluttering of a trapped bird screams, “Help me! I’m alive!” Instincts older than humanity may save humans as long as we respect all of life.


Barsalou, L. W. (2008). “Grounded Cognition.” Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-45.

Rizzolatti, G., and Sinigaglia, C. (2008). Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions. Translated by Frances Anderson. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Scarry, E. (1999). Dreaming by the Book. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Starr, G. G. (2010). “Multisensory Imagery.” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. Edited by Lisa Zunshine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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