Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Power of Imagination

Last week, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling spoke at Harvard University's commencement exercises (for the full text of her speech, click here; you can also see it). In her moving speech, Rowland made explicit the links between imagination and empathy, and between empathy and social action:

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I was incredibly moved by her speech and, as a psychologist, I thought the links she made with empathy were profound insights into human nature: by imagining ourselves in other people's shoes, we develop a heightened empathy for them. In turn, this heightened empathy moves some of us to act on behalf of others. Her remarks also left me wondering about the implications for people with autism and Asperger's disorder, disorders that are typically marked by low levels of empathy. Did their difficulties with empathy mean that they also had difficulties imagining? It turns out that Rowling was on to something: children with autism have less imaginative play--they have difficulty generating novel ideas, particularly those that involve language (click here for an abstract about this work). Thus, some of the implications of her observations are supported by research.

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