Welcome… to Qualia. A thought experiment in sound…



I’m Bishop Sand.


This is episode 2:  empathy.


Now the word empathy always sounds good. But strangely, our approach to it (space) and many of its consequences are far from positive.


A warning to listeners: this episode contains some disturbing material that is both real and imagined.


JUST LIKE last episode, in order to feel what we’ve designed for you to experience, you’ll need to be fully present for this episode. So please remove any distractions—Ideally you’re sitting in a quiet space with your eyes closed.


Again, we’re going to be using a technique called directed visualization… where we help you to construct a world to experience. It’s not hard. All you have to do is relax. Feel creative and focus on my instructions. So, ready to begin?   


Then let’s go to a completely different place….




Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose out through the mouth. Focus on your breath.


Keeping breathing.




To start… we’re going expose you to a technique pioneered by prof. Daniel Batson. It’s called perspective taking.


Batson: It’s a very powerful technique


Narration: That’s him right there.



Let’s construct our environment…


It’s a humid summer afternoon. You’re surrounded by stained concrete and squeaking escalators near a metro station.


(sound fx)


A man wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt is offering up a cup to the commuters going home. He has large, tired eyes and deep creases down his face, into his beard.


His name is Harold Mitchell.


Take a moment and really try to imagine what he’s feeling and thinking…


Harold: It’s really humiliating…


Narration: He’s 56 years old. He lives on the streets. He… is lonely.


Harold: and it’s hard…


Narration: He also needs food, clothing, just a place to wash.

He became homeless three years ago after losing his job because of an illness.

His age and his health problems kept him from securing employment.


Harold: I’m really trying to get myself together and get out this street.



Again, think of what he’s thinking… what he’s feeling… in fact, let’s go further. Let’s step inside Harold…


Narrator: He has no immediate family .


He really needs help.


This feeling that you’re feeling right now—it’s very common.  It’s called Empathy. It’s the feelings evoked when you see someone in need.  



Ok, we’re going to leave Harold Mitchell for the moment, but don’t forget him…  we’re now stepping into a brand new environment that you’ll help construct for reasons that will be clear in a minute.



Picture a small, one story house. You’re wearing nice clothes and dress shoes. Walk to the front door. Breath in the air. Look at the door. Open it. Walk inside.


We’re going to need some people in here, so let’s construct them.


First, let’s create a woman. Use this voice as a guide.


melody: …I have a house and a garden and I actually keep bees…



Narration: Imagine her to be… a little short…


With big, expressive eyes.


melody: but it’s just me with my dog dickensen. ..


Narrator: Now let’s construct another person using…THIS voice.


Dan: I am the president and CEO of brightside…


Narrator: Again, construct him piece by piece. This time, YOU imagine his face, hair, and style.


Dan: was educated on the east coast…



Now… just fill out the room with a few more people.




Narrator: Ok so now we’ve made enough people for a proper dinner party. We thought a dinner party would be a perfect place to explore your empathetic mechanisms



it’s a place where disparate perspectives collide. And we’ve  carefully constructed the characters to do battle — so to speak — for you.


Let’s listen in.


Scottie: how does it compare to back home? Back east?

Orlando: it’s… pretty wild man, I like saw a dude drop his wallet after getting off the bus and there’s a homeless guy just ran up and grabbed his wallet. And i’m thinking he’s about to take off but he ran up to the guy who dropped it and gave it back to him. That’s just crazy man. I mean if that were me, I’d at least check to see how much money was in there first (laugh)


Yvette: That’s surprising

Rain: You think that’s surprising?

Yvette: Yeah, I mean that’s not how they normally act, right? I mean do you think he was up to something or whatever?



Narrator: What do you think?


Scottie: Well, I dunno. I’ve tried to help people before. I feel like, in my experience, if you offer real help, they tend to like avoid that. They kinda want the quick fix or they want just some money for some more [mumble]…


Rain: I’m surprised by you, sweetie!


Scottie: Well, it’s from experience, you know…


Rain: I think that if you REALLY try to empathize with these people, you’ll feel their struggles and you’ll find a way… we can all find a better way to just HELP these people.


Scottie: yeah but how much energy — realistically— can you put towards that?


Mannus: Well, and and and we don’t live in Soviet Russia, right? If people aren’t willing to work. If they’re not willing to contribute to society, why should society contribute to them?


Yvette: seriously, this problem won’t go away… I completely agree.


Paul: If they want a dollar from me, maybe they should come rake my yard first, ya know?


Yvette: Exactly.


Ernest: Yeah, but maybe they do want to work. You assume that they don’t want to work or they haven’t worked to get them out here. But like, Santos, you’re a teacher, you can speak to this!


Santos: Yeah, I don’t think it’s their fault that they’re homeless. I mean what about people who are homeless as children or teenagers. Do you think they’re lazy?


Stella: I’d love to just chime in here and say that I think it would take a lot of effort to change this system.  I mean what are we going to do all? Take money out of our own pockets? Like this hard earned cash that we’ve built our own selves up? And take that and throw that at some cause that’s going to take an extreme solution? I don’t know I’m just not sure I believe that?


Nadine: we’re underestimating the number of people we’re talking about here. I mean there’s nearly half a million people in the US are homeless. And so that’s one out of every six hundred people.


Melody: you know… I would give money to homeless people and I realized at some point that It would just sorta make things worse. You know?  I’m pretty sure he’d spend that on booze.



Narrator: What do you think?


What do you say here?




Do any of these arguments… resonate with you?


(pull reverbed snippets from above)

Scottie: They kinda want the quick fix

Mannus: If they’re not willing to contribute to society


Have you used them when confronted by a homeless person in need?

Yvette: this problem won’t go away

Melody: It would just sorta make things worse






we crafted the dinner party conversation from experiments that have been shown to block empathy.


You see, when someone’s in need, you can think of them as a signal that triggers your empathy.



And like any signal, you can BLOCK IT… and NOT feel empathy. And we often do it in one of THREE WAYS.



By number 1,RATIONALIZING, which means coming up with reasons not to feel empathy. This is exactly what most of the people in the dinner party were doing.


Number 2, You can escape… the situation. You can cross the street and that physically stops you from encountering the signal.


Number 3… you can suppress this signal by helping… that would fulfill a person’s need and stop the person from making you feeling empathy.




(this is important so let’s emphasize here with space and reiteration)

Let’s remember Harold Mitchell…

(scene re-established)


If you were sensing empathy coming in, you likely had an impulse to rationalize his situation, escape it, or help it.


And researchers say this is completely justified…





Batson:  if we feel empathy then we’re likely to be altruistically motivated and that’s going to cost us

Batson: then


Zaki: If you can avoid empathizing  altogether, you can avoiding putting yourself in that tense situation.


Narration: take a moment to imagine these tense situations.


They can be very distressing.


Think of times in your life when you saw someone in need, felt that empathic distress…


Someone injured by in a traffic accident

(cell phone audio pulled from somewhere that has people saying “omg!”)


Someone harassed and afraid

(cell phone audio of bigotry of some kind)


I’m sure you can think of your own examples (give space). And if you’d like, you can share them with us...



Tor Wager:You just feel really bad.


Narration: Your pulse could be racing, your stomach clenching, your palms — starting to sweat.


It’s not pleasant. And it’s why we avoid empathy altogether so we can just get rid of this distress. So what can we do?



There is another side to empathy and it doesn’t involve any distress.

It’s called Empathic Care.


Tor: It literally can be described as a kind of softness in the chest. So you might feel it in your body.




Tor: It’s like you want to reach out and hug them or help them or hold them or something.  But really it’s a moving toward the person. IT’s a feeling that they’re connected to you or that you want to connect with them.


Being able to feel hurt but not turn away.


[pause and restate]


ZAki:  There’s a sense (at least at the level of the brain) that these people are experiencing others’ suffering not as an aversive awful thing for themselves, but as an opportunity.


Narration: And here’s the thing: YOU CAN DEVELOP YOUR EMPATHIC CARE… It’s a skill to overcome your distress.






Rain: Well, without leaving this room, I think we could all participate in a little compassion meditation right now. ok? Everybody, here, Come on… it’ll be fine, I promise


Scottie: Rain, sweetie, I don’t think this is the time.








Narration: And one way to improve upon this skill is meditating: focusing on those who suffer. Buddhists do this all the time. FOr a first pass at how you might do this, let’s go back to our little dinner party, where one of our characters is leading other guests.  let yourself go for a ride with this meditation - even though meditating might not be your thing.  


Rain: breathe… and I want you to think about being another person, maybe someone that you’ve encountered… everybody’s had a story this evening. I want you to picture that person… breath in.. and out… now try to think about what is that person feeling… what feelings come up for you now?    

maybe sadness…

maybe hunger….

maybe loneliness… maybe addiction…

go ahead and sit with that feeling for a little bit… let it make you feel uncomfortable… it’s ok you’re in a safe place. breath in… and back out… now I want you to think about letting those feelings go… just let them go… release the sadness…. release the pain…


Narration: just simply let yourself feel this warmth. And your distress can fade away.





Narrator: "Ok, it's not just all touchy feely -- there's a real basis for this type of thinking.


Roshi Halifax: that’s right.


Narration: This is the buddhist, Roshi Joan Halifax, and she’s got some advice on how to achieve this empathic care…


Roshi Halifax: you can reallocate your attention to a neutral place. For example, like the pressure of your feet on the floor.


Allowing the body to down-regulate.


Roshi Halifax: So that your intention and aspirations ground you.






Narration: Alright, later on in the dinner party…

After everyone has eaten…


[lively Chatter]


Stella: Orlando I’m full.


Orlando: Are you serious? I’m still hungry.




Narration: Things are winding down…


Now we’re going to tag along with two dinner party guests. We’re just observing them.


You see, they’re about to feel empathy


…one will feel empathic care


…the other, distress…


… And while listening, think of how YOU would react in their position. What would you do?





Careful, it’s slick



Mannus, I doubt Scottie would want me telling you this…



Then, are you sure you should?



(Laughs) Oh, it’s just that, I hope you know how much the job means to him. He, uh, he really looks up to you.



Right, well, uh, he’s done good things for us. We’re happy to have him.



I’m glad to hear that. I, we know how talented he is, and hearing him when we’re together. He could be doing more for you, and…



Jesus, Rain, look…



Excuse me, folks, could either of you spare a dollar?(use other recording)



Not today, man. OK, where was I…



Thank you, miss.(use other recording)



Mannus. It’s freezing out. Here sir.

(she begins digging in her bag for her wallet. We hear her pulling out some cash.)

See, this is what we were talking about. Here.



Mannus, it’s freezing.



So? You think I give him a couple dollars it’s gonna make him warmer?



No. But you…



OK, here. The guy has, what is that, a ukulele?

(digs in his pocket, pulls out his wallet.)

Here’s five bucks. You play me a song on that ukulele, and it’s yours.



Mannus, he’s not a…


But, he is, Rain. That’s exactly what he is. I don’t even need to hear how good the song is. He just has to provide a service…



Sir, it’s too cold to…



Yeah, it is cold. You’re right. Well, there’s a shelter on 15th. They’ll take you in. But, you’re not getting my money for nothing.



I’m sorry to have bothered you.






(barely containing her anger)

Mannus, that was disg…



Rain, I suggest we change the subject.


(We hear the sound of Homeless Man slipping and falling hard)



Oh, shit.




What, did he fall?


(We hear moaning in the distance from Homeless man)


Narration: In this moment, the homeless man is hurt and both people feel empathy, but notice how they experience it… differently….



Shit. Hey, man are you alright?


(Homeless Man moans)



Oh no! Oh my God, he hit his head, he hit his head!



Whoah. Listen, man, (snaps fingers) you good?


(Homeless Man continues to moan)



I think he’s pretty hurt.



He’s bleeding! Mannus, he’s bleeding.



Hey, can you hear me?



What are we gonna do?!



OK, I think this might be serious. Rain?



He’s really hurt. He’s bleeding!



Rain! I need you to take this cloth, OK? Take this cloth and hold it to his head.






We’re gonna lift him up here.

(Sound of them lifting him.)

Let's get him to my car, it's just right around the corner there.



He’s bleeding. He’s bleeding.



Rain, we’re gonna help him. He’s gonna be alright. You keep that cloth to his head and we’ll get him in my car, OK?






We’ll get him to the hospital. He’s going to be ok.




Narration: How do you react to empathy?


You can share your stories of people in need, the distress you felt, and what happened… at our website,…  no judgment. These are feelings we all have.


Narration: because when someone is in need, this signals you to feel empathy. You can block this signal through rationalizing, escaping, or helping.


And if this signal isn’t blocked, you experience empathic distress… or empathic care. Both promote helping the person in need, but obviously the distress is less pleasant.




Many people see empathy as something good inside themselves or others and they’re attracted to it. You have the ability to lift your blockade, feel more empathy, change your experience to a less distressing and more caring form of empathy.



And this change doesn’t have to feel unpleasant. It doesn’t have to feel like eating your vegetables. We’re not even promoting that you should feel more empathy!  


We just want you to consider the idea that you have the ability to change your relationship to empathy and it’s probably something that, deep down, you want to develop.




A note to listeners: The Harold Mitchell story was constructed from a real interview with a Chicago homeless man named Ronald Davis and the psychologist, Dan Baton's experimental procedure to evoke empathy.


"To make this episode, we actually held a real dinner party. With strangers! Who graciously took on roles and backstories we constructed using empathy research." SO special thanks to each of our fantastic dinner party guests…



You can see our dinner party guests with some fantastic portraits from Josh Vertucci at you can compare them with the images in your constructed scenes (seeing people after hearing their voices is always a shock).


This episode was also informed by interviews with experts that you may or may not have heard. Here are their titles



You can check out Paul Slovic’s website: arithmetic of And his book, numbers and nerves.


Be sure to check out her book where she describes more methods of achieving this compassionate state:


And before we go, I just want to say that this is an experimental new show and we’d really like to hear what you think of it. Go to, click on feedback where you can leave a comment or voicemail.


Special thanks to Leigh Patterson, Rae Ellen Bichell, and Sara Rosinsky

Jordan Wirfs-Brock is Qualia’s editor and co-creator,

Our team also includes Dan Boyce and Josh Vertucci.


I’m Bishop Sand

Thanks for listening.