My Hero Academia: How It Makes Us Care
In her lecture on ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ at the Royal Society of Arts Dr. Brena Brown closes her discussion on empathy with the following remark
‘Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection’
Dr. Brown here, is referring to is an empathic connection and I was intrigued by this quote, as it triggered within me, a series of connections of ‘my very own’. In this essay, I would like to look at empathy, and how it creates a profound sense of connection between us the viewer and the events which play out before us on the screen. The character I wish to centre this analysis around is Ochako Uraraka and her first round battle with Bakugo in the Battle portion of the Sports Festival Arc.
Throughout the first season of My Hero Aca, Uraraka wasn’t a dynamic force within the series in any true sense of the term as she herself admits prior to the duel with Bakguo in episode 22. Uraraka as a character seemed fated to hide in the enormous shadow characters like Deku, Bakugo, All Might and later Todoroki, would cast over the series. However in season two something began to change with Ochako, as her character transitioned from a passive agent to that of an active one. Now creating agency is a key component when creating sympatric characters in story telling and one way this can be achieved is through affording us, a glimpse into the mind of the character in question. Learning their motivations, desires, dreams, hopes, backstory, fears etc. all serve to humanise the character and allow us, as viewers, to began to build empathic connections between ourselves and the Ochako that is presented to us on screen. In the case of Uraraka, the veneer began to crack for the audience, in episode 14 when it is revealed that she wants to become a pro-hero to support her family, who are currently experiencing financial uncertainty. This reveal coupled with subsequent shots of her unease, nervous-ness and perhaps fear in the build up to the confrontation with Bakugo serve as an anchoring point for the audience, as we begin to build an empathic connection with Ochako. A dramatic tension has been added to her journey and she has been humanised. Now there are stakes.
Now empathy is actually quite an ambiguous term so let’s try and lock down a working idea of what we mean when we say empathy. The 19th century German philosopher Theodore Lipps describes Empathy as a psychological resonance phenomenon that is triggered in our perceptual encounter [the act of viewing] with external objects [in this case Ochako]. More specifically, these resonance phenomena are triggering inner “processes” that give rise to experiences similar to ones that I have when I engage in various activities involving the movement of my body. Since my attention is perceptually focused on the external object, I experience them as being in the object
Ok we got that? The actions of our protagonist (in this case Ochako) cause an internal process to occur within us, the viewer – as through the act of watching, we experience sensations of connectivity, as we relate the actions of Ochako, to moments we ourselves have experienced, which are similar to what Uraraka is experiencing throughout the School Festival Arc. Now at this point you might be saying. Neither you nor myself have ever experienced a savage, duel with a sweaty lunatic, one; who to all intents and purposes seems hell bent on scorching your very existence from this earth. How am I supposed to experience this ‘resonance phenomena’ you spoke of. Well to you dear septic I would say your right, I’ve never been faced with such a situation in my-life. I’m sure there were even people watching episode 22 who have not even experienced a situation where they were the under-dog. So how in the seven hells am I supposed to feel a sense of empathy, an emotionally charged connection with Ochako in this battle. Well the answer to that is actually pretty simple, it literally doesn’t matter. Sure personal experience and familiarity are incredible aids in forming emotional ties between the viewer and the protagonist but they are not everything, they enhance connection, they don’t necessarily create it. Why are they not everything?. What creates connection if not experience? The answer? Mirror neurons.
When we perform an action the part of the brain involved in carrying out this action is what is known as the motor-cortex. The motor cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements. When we reach for a glass of water resting on the table, individual neurons within the motor cortex of our brain begin to fire up and we can perform the action of reaching for the cup. Now what is fascinating about ‘mirror neurons’ is that when we watch others performing an action, a subset of the neurons within our own motor cortex begin to light up also, in fact as high as 20% of the neurons involved in task/execution also fire during task/observation. The implications of this are profound, when we see Ochaco battling Bakugo, mirror neurons within our brains make us literally feel what she is feeling to a milder degree. Our brains are re-enacting internally what we are witnessing on the screen. It is as if we the viewer are participating in this battle ourselves and it’s not just us, look at the crowd shots during the episode, they are living and breathing this spectacle; as we are. These crowd shots are a great story-telling technique as they amplify our own experience, now we are not just mirroring the actions of Uraraka, we see the crowd too is also experiencing the same ‘resonance phenomena’ that we are and the whole process feeds back into itself and intensifies it. In fact rather Incredibly Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran during his’ Ted talk on mirror neurons, explained how it was only through the presence of touch and pain receptors in our skin, sending a feedback signal to the brain that prevents us from consciously feeling the sensations of touch, pain etc. the object we are empathising with feels
Let’s keep this going, in his article for the Washington Post in 2016 titled ‘The science behind our love for March Madness’ Marco Iacoboni a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA identifies three adaptive functions evolutionarily speaking for the presence of mirror neurons in the human brain
- we learn by observing others. This is important in navigating novel social situations when we don’t know exactly how to behave and yet do want to blend with others.
- mirror neurons are also important for learning skills, and indeed learning by observation is a crucial aspect of learning
Thirdly and most relevantly, is that ‘mirror neurons make us connect emotionally with others. When I watch your smiling face, the mirror neurons for smiling fire up in my own brain, and I immediately feel what you feel. This is widely believed to be the very first step for empathy, for the human capacity to experience what others are experiencing’ Indeed, studies have shown that the more active are brain areas with mirror neurons when we watch others’ actions and emotions, the more empathic we are. With Mirror Neurons we have uncovered the root of empathy, and what we get here when we contextualize this process into the Ochako/Bakugo battle is what neuroscientist and film theorists Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra call “the embodied simulation’’ – It is our body that is experiencing this battle : it’s not just our “cognition” it’s our body in every sense of the word. When Ochako launches that debris at Bakugo and moves in for the winning blow, In our minds we are also moving in too – the suspense is ours…
In a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts titled The Empathic Civilisation the renowned economic and social-theorist Jeremy Rifkin discussed how people are in-fact soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we’re experiencing it ourselves. Rifkin states that research ‘in neuropsychology, brain research and child development suggest that we are actually soft wired not for aggression, violence, self-interest and utilitarianism, but for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship and that the first drive is the drive to actually belong – it’s an empathic drive.’
Now let that simmer as we return to the debris scene at the climax of the Bakugo/Uraraka duel. The camera begins to pan upwards, tracking the line of sight of the audience in the stadium, as the debris is then revealed to the viewer and to the spectators in the arena, the music in the background is now at it’s emotionally manipulative best as Ochako Uraraka, the spectators, and us the viewers are letting our hearts override our heads; it’s allowing us to waver-in, if not to outright suspend our disbelief, if only momentarily, perhaps, maybe, just maybe Ochako is going to pull this out. The empathic connection has reached its zenith as we return to Rifkin’s he continues ‘Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and routing for each other to flourish and be. It’s based on our frailties and our imperfections.’ Empathy is not feeling for, it is feeling with, and right then, in that moment, we were feeling ‘with’ Ochako, as we connected with her during a life-affirming high and during the soul crushing disappointment of what was to follow.
‘Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection’. The connection we felt, as fans of ‘My Hero Academia’, during that confrontation is the true magic of the series and the character of Ochako Uraraka.