Undergrad Research Investigates Empathy Through Biology and Art

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Kristin Sorensen
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Stepping into the studio of UNC Asheville art student Kristin Sorensen is an emotional experience. Huge drawings of grieving, mournful faces line the walls. And she wants you to feel it.

Using a combination of her studies in art and biology, Sorensen is conducting undergraduate research on empathy to present at the 30th Anniversary National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR), which will be held on UNC Asheville’s campus April 7-9.

As part of her research, Sorensen said she uses personal observation and inquiry to create artistic depictions of emotion that evoke an empathetic response in her audience.

“All of my work is representational figurative drawing,” Sorensen said. “I use charcoal and graphite. Sometimes I use encaustic, which is a beeswax mixed with resin.”

Spurred by curiosity, Sorensen also researched what happens in the human body when we empathize with others.

“I realized, ‘Oh! Mirror neurons are why we can empathize,’” Sorensen said. “How does that work? And what does like look like? And what does it look like when someone’s not empathetic and they have no ability to empathize? How does that manifest itself?”

Sorensen said her research is important because empathy helps people understand and relate to another’s plight, better understand personal emotions, and have Kristen Sorensenhealthier and more successful relationships.

“Depicting empathy, or trying to evoke empathy in others, is difficult,” Sorensen said. “I have to experience the research on a personal level in order to depict it so that other people can feel it.”

“It’s been really, really fun and very interesting,” Sorensen said. “Incredibly interesting.”

Hear the conclusion of Sorensen’s research at her presentation at NCUR, at 2:20 on Friday, April 8 in Owen Hall, room 102.

Story and photographs by Sarah Carballo ‘17