Everybody is suddenly talking about empathy. It’s on the lips of neuroscientists and business gurus, politicians and school teachers. The Dalai Lama has said that empathy is the key to cultivating compassion, while economist Richard Layard believes it’s the basis of creating a happier society.
So what exactly is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide your actions. That makes it very different from sympathy, which is more about pity or feeling sorry for someone, rather than really trying to look at the world from their viewpoint. In fact, the frequency of internet searches for the word ‘empathy’ has more than doubled in the last 10 years, while searches for ‘sympathy’ are down 30%.
The latest neuroscience research reveals that 98% of us have the ability to empathise, but few of us put our full empathic potential to use. And as a society, we have made even less effort to harness the power of empathy to create fundamental change, from challenging prejudices and stereotypes to inspiring us to take action to relieve child poverty.
The latest neuroscience research reveals that 98% of us have the ability to empathise, but few of us put our full empathic potential to use.
That’s why I’ve decided to found the world’s first Empathy Museum, an experiential and conversational adventure space to create a mass upsurge in empathic awareness, where you learn to see life from the perspective of people from different cultures, generations and social backgrounds.
What might the Empathy Museum look like? It will start as a series of pop-up exhibits in different cities. You might arrive and see a Human Library bus. On its seats are open-minded volunteers you can ‘borrow’ for conversation, just as you might borrow a book. There could be Sikh teenagers or management consultants, off-duty soldiers or mental health nurses. You sit down and talk to someone whose world you would rarely get to enter in daily life. The Human Library is a model that has been successfully used by organisations such as Year Here.
In another planned exhibit, Labour Behind the Label, there are rows of sewing machines and a team of former sweatshop factory workers from Vietnam who will teach you how to make a shirt under the working conditions of your favourite fashion label. At the end of this empathy immersion you will be paid the equivalent amount that a garment factory worker in a developing country receives per shirt. This is an idea for the Empathy Museum that I discuss in my RSA Animate on empathy, The Power of Outrospection.
The Empathy Museum is an exciting social change project that has already taken its first steps. In January 2014 we founded the world’s first online Empathy Library, where you can find novels, children’s books, feature films and video shorts all about empathy.
More recently we held a hack weekend with students from the Royal College of Art in London to design prototype exhibits for a digital version of the Empathy Museum, to accompany the physical exhibits. And we now have a powerful team leading the project forward, including the founding director of The School of Life Sophie Howarth, M&G fund manager Eric Lonergan, and Oxford University neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach.
The word ‘museum’ comes from the Muses of Greek mythology, whose job was to inject a divine spark into everyday life. My hope is that in the future the source of this spark will be a global network of Empathy Museums that will reinvent the very meaning of public culture and leave their visitors changed forever.
-This is a guest blog by Roman Krznaric, writer and cultural thinker, and a founding faculty member of The School of Life. His latest book is Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. If you are interested in supporting the Empathy Museum please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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