Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion.
There is a profound cognitive leap that we are able to make. It starts with egocentricity and the world ‘as it is to me’. It lands on other-centredness and the world ‘as it is for you’. Divorce empathy from emotion – let’s call it a sterilised empathy – and you have the seedbed of logical reasoning and creative thought. Empathy and creativity share an important, even essential feature: to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view. We must see things not as they are but as they might be. And the value of that ability extends far beyond the simple fact that some of our neurons light up when we see someone else suffering – or that we feel compelled to help when we commiserate with another human being, be he alive or fictional."