Empathy not guaranteed. Photo: Flickr/SPERA.de Designerschuhe, Taschen und Accessoires
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Will walking in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or an Etonian help you empathise? Roman Krznaric thinks so

Roman Krznaric speaks about his new project, the Empathy Museum, and why he believes it has the power to make visitors more empathetic.

“Every major city has a holocaust museum, so why shouldn’t they have an empathy museum”, says Roman Krznaric. He is talking to me about his newest venture, the Empathy Museum. 

It's a project that aims to salvage us from our self-absorbed and narcissistic lives by engaging with people we may not normally come across. These are words I’ve heard already on the promo video for the museum, but am no less struck by the uncomfortable premise.

Empathy, it seems, is quite the hot topic. The Independent reports that, despite the hours we spend online communicating with one another, “empathy is not spreading effectively”, while I’m sure everyone will be relieved to read the Guardian’s claim that empathy “could be the thing that saves us [from extinction]”.

Which is why Krznaric is giving us all a helping hand. He has spent the last few years co-founding The School of Life with Alain De Botton, a project that aims to promote “emotional intelligence” through culture. Its courses, which include titles such as "The Art of Sadness" and "The Secret History of Your Emotions", promise to enlighten you for the small sum of £45 a session.

Krznaric’s attentions have now turned to the creation of a museum all about empathy. A travelling, interactive project that will open in September, as part of London's Totally Thames festival.

The key thinking behind the museum is to take us away from our “hyper-individualistic society”, moving “from an age of introspection to an age of outrospection” (buzzphrases I recognise well from Krznaric’s promotional work).

“I define empathy as to be able to step into someone else’s shoes,” remarks Krznaric.

Which might explain the "empathy shoe shop". It’s an activity where you wear shoes that belong to someone else. “They may be those of a Syrian refugee, or a Chinese factory worker,” Krznaric tells me. “You will be wearing headphones and hear a recording of them talking about their own lives.

“You’ll see the world from their perspective, and literally be walking a mile in their shoes”.

I’m not entirely convinced the saying really works when taken literally.

But Krznaric is hot on his metaphors, as you can see from the museum’s promo video below. Clever layering graphics show Krznaric seeing the world (literally, again) through someone else’s eyes. An activity he mentions, and one that still makes me wince, is the theme park-esque invitation to “take your place among your fellow workers, and experience the relentless pace of a sweatshop factory”.

Combined with the trendy minimalist graphics of the video, this invitation feels quite shocking: the possibility of spending a few hours in a fake sweatshop in order to understand how the other half lives seems, to me, condescending to say the very least.

I ask Krznaric whether he thinks this might be problematic. It’s important, he replies, that it’s not just about empathising with the marginalised, but "with the rich and powerful, too". And for this he has a solution! While I doubt that many "old Etonian investment bankers" will be willing to volunteer, you can still get your empathy hit by wearing their shoes (they're designer, don't you know).

“We are also going to be developing projects where you bake bread with people who are, for example, asylum seekers or people from other realms of life: you bake bread with them and then eat the bread together,” says Krznaric. 

The symbolism is clunky, but Krznaric proves much more convincing on this idea. The thinking comes from the Contact Hypothesis: “The idea is that if you have two groups of people who hate each other . . . you should get them to do something together”.

He adds: “In 500 studies of contact between people of different ideals, in 96 per cent of cases getting them to do something together builds empathy and breaks down prejudice.”

The museum strives to make us less self-involved. Yet there is something smug about the whole endeavour: a kind of self-congratulatory emotional awareness that says, "well done me, I am capable of empathising with this poor person". The examples of minority groups used (Syrian refugee, Chinese factory worker, and so on) will certainly be worse off than the average person who visits the museum.

The whole idea behind the project makes perfect sense. Clearly we should all strive to be more empathetic, and I’m all for the "empathy revolution" Krznaric is so fervently promoting in his work. But the museum itself hinges on a tactlessness that doesn’t bridge social gaps, but reinforces them.

Krznaric assures me that, “it’s not just going to be a voyeuristic observer of someone else”. I can’t see how, with an activity called “the human library”, it can be anything otherwise.

The Empathy Museum opens in September 2015; its first opening will be part of London's Totally Thames festival.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear