Riva Capellari

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Located in Brookside in the heart of Kansas City

A Walk in Others' Shoes

As a singer, much of the preparation work that goes into my performances revolves around the question – what do I want to communicate to and share with my audience? I try to respect the composer and their choice of text by reflecting upon the words and how they are set to the music. I dig into my own life in order to discover a personal yet universal rendering of the text that will resonate with those listening. The ability to understand mutual feelings and experiences regardless of who we are, seems to be hard wired in us.

Empathy: “the ability to share the effective experiences of others”. Or more plainly, to walk in another’s shoes.

In the past, empathy has been relegated to the sensory-emotional sphere. However, recent discoveries by neuroscientists reveal that empathy is not solely sensory driven, but actually stimulates specific neural substrates in our brain. This newly found perspective goes so far as to acknowledge that empathy is a strong component in our decision making, linking our cognitive processes with the workings of our bodily sensations.

The brain evaluates and regulates the empathetic response that is automatically activated by our external perceptions. Like the top down vs. bottom up relationship of motor learning (does the brain teach the body or does the body teach the brain?), this back and forth, up and down loop allows us to empathize with others without becoming emotionally overwrought ourselves, making sure we keep the focus on them and not turn it inwards. Also, our relationship and attention to the situation effects the level of our empathetic response. The brain looks at how involved we are in the experience. Is it personal or a second hand witnessing of a TV event? A cognitive evaluation is then made and communicated downwards, moderating the sensations triggered by these external cues (seeing someone in pain for instance).

Certain areas in our brain light up when we experience emotions or witness them in others. These neural recognitions of not only our personal emotional responses but those we see in other people, support the idea that somethimes we do “feel” what they feel.

So when singing about the pain of a lost love or the joy of a new found one, we participate in the shared emotional experiences of humanity via our common “neural substrates”. Empathy provides us a kinship with and builds a bond between all of us, even those who long ago penned words that still speak to our brains and our hearts today.

Tania Sanger and Claus Lamm, The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. The Year in Cognitive Science 1156, no.1. 2009

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