There is more to Observation than meets the eye

Zombies. Part 2 of Empathy Series.

Empathy the ability to vicariously experience and to understand the affect of other people.

If you had the chance to read or watch Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, you would be familiar with the concept that follows. In the novel the main zombie character “R” is rather bored with his existence. He craves for human brains, as he is able to “feel alive” through the victims’ memories he experiences when he eats them. Sound familiar?

Good news is that, you don’t have to turn into a zombie or eat brains to achieve empathy. You can acquire it simply by performing an observation.

Thanks to your mirror neurons, the process should be described as it follows.

If I pinch my arm and you are watching me, the same set of neurons will fire in both our brains. However, you will not physically feel “the pinch” because the receptors in your skin will tell you that it is not your arm being pinched.

Based on that idea there has been some major medical breakthroughs. A recent example is enabling a patient to play “Guitar Hero” with a paralyzed hand.

Image sourse Independent

Another example: patients diagnosed with total paralysis not only are able to move by their will with the help of exoskeletons but they also gain back some sensitivity.

Credit AASDAP/Lente Viva Filmes

The way researchers accomplish that is simple. The patient watches a video simulation while at the same time their brain activity is recorded and then reproduced.

Both cases require assisting technology but the achievements will not be possible without observation.

Credit AASDAP/Lente Viva Filmes

Without doubt we are watching not only with our eyes and there is more to direct or indirect observation than sitting next to users. Our brain’s mirror neurons fire in the same way as if we actually do that same action ourselves and what better way to understand users and achieve empathy?


All of the above however is motor activity related — does empathy stop there? See more about what happens during interviews and focus groups nicely explained with a few studies done by Uri Hasson in Empathy Series Part 3.

Part 1 of Empathy Series: What and Why about Empathy