How to Grow Your Empathy Through Better Visual Perception – Take It from Alan Alda

July 10, 2017 by Laura Gomez

The simple act of noticing someone’s eye color can build your empathy, explains Alan Alda, who got so curious about empathy one day that he began to experiment on himself. Any time he’d interact with someone, he would try to figure out what they were feeling, and name their emotional state (using strictly his inside voice). This exercise inspired psychologist Dr. Matthew Lerner to conduct a scientific study on empathy, and how it can be bolstered by practicing visual perception. Alda lists the benefits of paying more attention to the people you encounter each day as numerous: annoying people become easier to tolerate, discussions become more productive, you feel more relaxed, which is contagious to those around you—you can even become a better conversationalist and writer. He is full of praise for the effect of empathy on communication, but not without caveat: he warns that empathy must be managed and edited in order to be a successful tool, otherwise it can work against you. Alda has summarized his adventures in the art and science of communication in his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Alan Alda – Actor
Author, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”

Alan Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer and director. In addition to The Aviator, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, Alda’s films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Flirting With Disaster, Manhattan Murder Mystery, And The Band Played On, Same Time, Next Year and California Suite, as well as The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which he wrote, and The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life and Betsy’s Wedding, all of which he wrote and directed. Recently, his film appearances have included Tower Heist, Wanderlust, and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

He helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University where he is a Visiting Professor, helping to develop innovative programs that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public. He originated The Flame Challenge, a yearly international competition for scientists in which they compete to explain complex scientific concepts so that 11-year-olds can understand them. Since 2008, he has worked with physicist Brian Greene in presenting the annual World Science Festival in New York City, attended since its inception by over a million people. He has won numerous awards for communicating science from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the National Science Board.

Alda was born in New York City, the son of the distinguished actor, Robert Alda. He began acting in the theater at the age of 16 in summer stock in Barnesville, Pennsylvania.

During his junior year at Fordham University, he studied in Europe where he performed on the stage in Rome and on television in Amsterdam with his father.

After college, he acted at the Cleveland Playhouse on a Ford Foundation grant. On his return to New York, he was seen on Broadway, off-Broadway and on television. He later acquired improvisational training with “Second City” in New York and “Compass” at Hyannisport. That background in political and social satire led to his work as a regular on television’s “That Was the Week That Was.”

His wife, Arlene, is the author of nineteen books, including her latest, Just Kids from the Bronx. An award winning professional photographer, her work has appeared in a number of magazines and books. They have three daughters and eight grandchildren.

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