Imagination as a path of Empathy

What is the role of literature, film and other works of imagination in developing empathy? 

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Imagination is a concept that relates in all the areas of knowledge, even in those that are seen to be just about logic and reason, such as mathematics. Imagination can mean something different for each individual, so its definition is unlimited. This idea is supported by Albert Einstein who said “Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” However according to the Oxford English Dictionary, imagination is ‘the capacity to form a mental representation of something without the stimulus of sense experience.’

Traditionally most people associate imagination with imagery and making a mental image of something. Others associate it with creativity, problem solving and originality. Regardless any definition given to this concept imagination is always present in the mind of every person thanks to what has been seen or heard, in literature, where fairy tales, fiction books and films that are often invoked in fantasy and science fiction, invite the readers or viewers to pretend such stories are true and to imagine themselves in another person’s place, which is very important to social relations and understanding. Imagination gives people the capacity of imagining them in others shoes, having the ability to identify with another person, this is what is known as empathy. According to the OED empathy is “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Thanks to the role of literature as works of imagination people are able to develop empathy in their daily life.


We can now say that imagination plays an important and crucial role in the ability of each individual to understand the people around him or her. With greater empathy, people turn more compassionate and aware of how others think, feel and behave. The importance of empathy can be described as one of the nutrients that feed our human needs. Literature, fiction books, novels are all nourishing because they expand our imagination and develop our empathy. Empathy is something most people in their daily lives practice, and literature is the crucial manual that help them do it. It encourage people to exercise their own imagination, to develop the capacity to put themselves in another person’s situation so that those who are different to them in circumstance, identity or practice can no longer be dehumanized.

The aim of encouraging readers to engage their own imagination is the goal of many writers, specially the ones of the 18th century, their literary works emphasize on sentiment and sensitivity, to the realities, emotions and mood states of those around our lives, which in turn looked forward to shape the readers own feelings and responses. Sensitivity is exalted as an ideal in empathy since it indicates a high level of imagination. Through literature people can live more than one life. Their imagination takes them to times, places and realities that they have not personally lived. By getting to know the viewpoints of others from within, through reading, people can experience their experiences and clearly understand how others feel and think.

Last year I was in drama class and one of my favorite parts about it was working out the back story of the characters that I was playing. Who are they? Where did they come from? What do they think? How do they behave? Why do they react the ways they react? In the play script there are often many things that answer some of these questions, but there is also a blank space, that you get to fill in order to act almost exactly as the character of the play. The idea to participate on a story that is not your own is sincerely the most interesting and entraining thing about drama. It doesn’t matter if the character I need to represent did something horrible, or if it is a villain, and worst if he’s nothing like me, here is where it comes the challenging part of acting. Many people might find this very difficult and confusing, they commonly get nervous and stressed, but for me this is more like an opportunity, where I am able to understand someone with a totally different story than myself, opening the doors of my imagination, giving me the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Being able to understand and enter into someone else’s story is an immeasurable experience and value, but If we are unable to do this, our hearts and our minds become immobile and we find ourselves in a rooted site of thoughts and opinions tighten, unable to participate in open dialogue with people with other views or values, affecting our social relations and understanding. This is why imagination as a form to develop empathy is very important in our lives, since it help us grow in our social environment and enriches our understanding.

Another example where in my life I use works of imagination to develop empathy is the following: A man that had a brain stroke and now his half body paralyzed. An eight-grade student who was bullied in school because he got the first place in class. A 14 year old boy that does not play with plastic guns but is surrounded by real weapons, and is obligated to use them. A family that lost their daughter in a school trip to the Amazonas. None of these stories are mine. All of these stories are a part of me. One is from a book of fiction that I read, one from a film,  and two of them are from people who I know, whose stories I have heard. Each one changed me, each one shaped me, and they continue building my life.

It is important we have empathy in our lives, it creates compassion which help us try to understand and feel something about someone else’s story. A film about a 14 year old boy that during the 80’s one day he was harshly recruited and kidnapped by the military of Iraq, he was cruelty separated from his family, he was sent into a new life of war, guns, massacre and genocide, he was tortured and taught to kill, converting him into a boy with no identity. A book about a boy who was bullied in school and almost comitted suicide.

cropped-imagination-reading-book2After wathcing this film and reading the book I asked have I had this experienced myself? No, my 14-year-old life was very different. It is important to allow the story to move our hearts, allowing imagination reach into that story, and making us experienced compassion. Last year my uncle had a brainLife-in-my-headstroke and nowadays he is laid in a bed with half of his body immobile, and one year ago a friend from my older school passed away in an school trip accident in the river the Amazonas. My life was changed when I read about this boy who was bullied and almost comited sucide, or when I saw my uncle laid on a bed, or when I heard Maria Camila was the student that passed away. In that moment I found myself standing in their place and am amazed at the outstanding and successful man this boy is today when he was subject to so much judgment, to the happiness that radiates my uncle’s face, enjoying his life each day fighting for his recovery, and Maria Camila’s parents living each day in a strong and positive way, overcoming with their lost. These stories showed me how empathy and compassion require imagination, and showed me how through my imagination I achieved to be in the other’s person shoes, when you are trying to understand how it would be to be in a situation without experiencing it before, you are just using your imagination to understand what they are actually undergoing.

Imagination and Empathy are two different concepts that have a very important link, to conclude we can say that imagination including literature, films and books, as works of imagination, are the essentials to the developing of empathy in the human beings. This imagination as path of empathy is what truly shapes our lives, and it may not always be easy, to empathize with others but, through good people skills and their imagination, we can work towards more empathetic feelings. Individuals who can empathise enjoy better relationships with others and greater well-being through life.

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The Imagination of Empathy | Speak Up for Change. 2015. The Imagination of Empathy | Speak Up for Change. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].

Imagination as a Path to Empathy | Flutter Lyon. 2015. Imagination as a Path to Empathy | Flutter Lyon. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].

Literature, empathy and the moral imagination | openDemocracy. 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].

Gustav’s TOK Blog. 2015. Gustav’s TOK Blog. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].

What is the connection between imagination and empathy? – Quora. 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].

Empathy & Imagination | Issue 52 | Philosophy Now. 2015. Empathy & Imagination | Issue 52 | Philosophy Now. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015].


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