Lucy Jameson
Lucy Jameson
A view from Lucy Jameson

Empathy machines

The Uncommon Creative Studio founder reflects on the role empathy can play in great creative work.

“If there is any one secret of success,” Henry Ford said, “it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own.”

The discovery of empathy neurons started with an ice cream. In the early 1990s, Italian researchers made an unexpected discovery. They were studying monkeys' brain activity – for example, what happened when they reached for, held and ate food.

One day, as a researcher brought an ice cream back from lunch and raised it to his mouth to eat, he noticed neurons firing in the monkeys’ brains. Firing in exactly the same area that usually showed activity when the animals themselves made a similar hand movement. How could this be happening when the monkeys were watching him, not moving themselves? The monkey’s brain seemed to be having a physical experience just by watching.

The researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, had discovered something they called mirror neurons. Subsequent research suggests there’s a mirror neuron system in humans, as well. They fire up in the same way as your motor neurons do, but they do it when you see someone else doing something. For example, when you see someone smile your mirror neurons fire up, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. It’s why you automatically wince when you see someone stub their toe and probably why porn is so successful too.

Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran asked why, if you see someone else getting touched, do you not feel it, if your mirror neurons fire? The answer is, usually, you have receptors in your skin that tell you that you are not being touched. But imagine that your arm was anesthetised, so the receptors could not signal that you were not being touched. Ramachandran says you would literally feel it in your hand. That’s why he calls them Gandhi or empathy neurons.

Importantly, mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind them. It's as though these neurons adopt the other person's perspective – suggesting the mirror neuron system plays a key role in our ability to empathise and socialise with others. Which shows we are wired for empathy. But some have more developed empathy muscles than others. Reading literature, for example, has been scientifically proven to increase empathy.

Empathy is – or should be – the cornerstone of marketing. As [the CEO of strategy and innovation studio Jump Associates] Dev Patnaik said, "for thousands of years, people made things for other people they knew"; but the Industrial Revolution divided producer from consumer. Ever since, big corporations have struggled to put customers first. At our best, that’s where we come in. Combining empathy and creativity to come up with ideas that matter to customers. Looking out for ways to solve pain points in people’s lives.

Just like our recent work with H&M Man. We’d come to realise that clothes were powerful, creating confidence and becoming a unique ally on an individual’s journey. A truth that might well have made an interesting "ad".

But, while discussing this, the world’s media was predicting a recession and documenting an unemployment crisis. We believed there was an opportunity and obligation to do more than entertain. We changed our goal from ads to acts. Doing so led us to a research paper from Princeton University that had established job applicants’ competency is judged within one second of meeting an employer. And so, a new service was born. The One / Second / Suit – a pilot programme in the UK and US where anybody with a job interview can borrow a suit for free, for 24 hours.

Lucy Jameson is founder at Uncommon Creative Studio