Fast Tracks to Narrative Empathy: Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization in Graphic Narratives


Fast tracks for human emotional responses precede cognitive processes, according to the neuroscientific investigation of emotions such as anger and empathy and the psychology of “mind-reading,” via fast, unconscious recognition of facial expressions. Even simplified line drawings of facial expressions activate the “quick and dirty” subcortical bases of emotions that are followed by slightly slower cognitive responses routed through the neocortex. In comics and graphic narratives, illustrations of faces and bodily postures may capitalize on the availability of visual coding for human emotions, eliciting readers’ feelings before they even read the accompanying text. Little is known, however, about the relationship between the emotional responses evoked by visual artists’ strategies of anthropomorphizing animal faces or dehumanizing people’s faces and bodies, on the one hand, and the invitations to narrative empathy proffered by graphic storytelling, on the other hand. Drawing on my previous work on empathy vis-à-vis print narratives (see Keen, Empathy and “Strategic Empathizing”), the current essay explores the opportunities and challenges that graphic narratives pose for research in this domain.

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