The worlds of movies, television, and theater are overwhelmingly populated by political liberals. This frustrates some conservatives, who complain that the entertainment we consume is biased or propagandistic.
But why might successful writers, directors, and actors tend to lean leftward? New research offers an intriguing clue.
A recent study finds that such people are particularly good at imagining events that are far removed from their current reality. That imagination is, in a sense, their superpower, and it allows them to empathize with a wider range of people.
When envisioning faraway times or places, these highly creative individuals use a different brain mechanism than other, similarly accomplished but less imaginative people do when performing the same tasks.
The vivid images that result help them make a compassionate connection with the scene—whether it involves frightened refugees on the southern border, or what life might be like a century from now, after the impacts of climate change. Such higher levels of empathy have been linked to political liberalism.
"Our results suggest a novel positive benefit of creativity: It may help us connect better with others," writes a research team led by Meghan Meyer of Dartmouth College. "Creativity may help us get outside ourselves."
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Meyer and her colleagues describe three studies that demonstrate a connection between creativity and "distal imagination"—the ability to picture faraway realms. One of them featured 100 people who had achieved significant recognition in some creative field: 42 writers, 31 actors and/or directors, and 27 visual artists.
They were paired with 97 people who had achieved high levels of success in less-creative fields, including the medical, legal, and financial industries. All were asked to imagine (a.) what the world will be like in 500 years, (b.) what it's like to be on the bottom of the ocean, (c.) what it's like to be an angry dictator, and (d.) what the Earth would be like if the continents had never divided.
"Participants were shown each prompt for two minutes, and were instructed to imagine the experience and write a description of their simulation," the researchers write. Afterward, subjects noted how difficult they had found the experiment, and the extent to which they had been able to immerse themselves in their imaginary worlds.
Not surprisingly, the creative experts produced more vivid simulations than their equally prestigious counterparts who were not in the arts. Still, this advantage was limited to writers, directors, and actors, all of whom "have experience in generating and communicating fiction," the researchers note.
In a follow-up study, 13 writers and 14 directors/actors were paired with 26 successful people from outside the arts. While their brains were being scanned using fMRI technology, all participants were asked to imagine both common scenes (waking up in the morning and making coffee) and uncommon ones (waking up in the morning and finding you are of the opposite sex).
When imagining the common scenes, the brain activity of the creative experts and their less-creative counterparts was identical. But when imagining uncommon or distant scenes, the creative folk utilized a separate brain network: the dorsal medial subsystem.
This finding suggests that "creative individuals may be neurally prepared to transcend the here and now by default," the researchers write.
They add that this neural subsystem "is consistently associated with considering other people's intentions and personality traits." This suggests that high-level creativity is associated with a stronger ability to empathize with others, thanks to a greater ability to feel and see things from their perspective.
It is unclear whether this special ability is something writers, directors, and actors were born with (and that propelled them into the arts), or whether they tend to build it up over a career of storytelling. Regardless, studying whether this imaginative ability can be cultivated is clearly worthwhile, given its obvious usefulness. Think of how much stronger our dedication to environmental protection would be if we could truly, vividly picture the destruction we are causing for future generations.
Unless and until that happens, theater, film, and television artists arguably have an obligation to continue to use their gifts to help us see those things they have the unique ability to imagine. If they want to put their progressive values into action, that would include creating compelling visions of a more compassionate, more sustainable world.