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Mirror Neurons and Literature: Empathy and the Sympathetic Imagination in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee

Hilmar Heister


In the two essays “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals” (in The Lives of Animals, 1999) J.M. Coetzee lets Elizabeth Costello urge us to use our sympathetic imagination in order to access the experience of others—in particular, animals—and engage with them empathetically. Coetzee’s fiction illustrates how the use of the sympathetic imagination might evoke empathy in the reader. Narrative structure and the character’s mode of introspection engage the reader’s empathy through an ambivalent process of distancing and approximation, as Fritz Breithaupt puts forward in his narrative theory of empathy (Kulturen der Empathie, 2009). The sympathetic imagination and the complementary notion of embodiment feature prominently in Coetzee’s fictional discourse and resonate with neuroscience’s research on mirror neurons and their relation to empathy.


J.M. Coetzee; empathy; mirror neurons; symathetic imagination; neuroscience

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