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Credit: Joshua Tonies, Retrograde Empathy


Changing the landscape of human experience

Sciences and humanities are two different worlds. In our lab we have set out to bridge them, in order to advance our understanding of human experience and to help people to connect with others. To do so, we combine empirical research with hermeneutics.


In recent years, this research took place mostly in the areas of affect, narratives,  and empathy. A key concept for us is co-experience. How can people today share experiences in a polarized world? And how has the evolution and culture of our cognitive abilities led us to where we are now?

Empathy. In our work on empathy, we use phenomenological approaches to study the triggers and blockers of empathy. One of our contributions to the field is the three-person model of empathy: we examine how people take a side in a conflict that they observe, how they develop empathy for their chosen side, and then potentially demonize the other side (see Breithaupt, 2012, 2019).


Narrative Thinking. Our lives are more intense when we are enmeshed in stories – I narrate, therefore I am. But it is not only our own lives that are heightened by narratives; through narratives we are also able to transform individual experience into shared experience and empathy. Our research is to substantiate the idea that our species should be characterized as homo narrans, the storytelling animal, by showing how narratives shape how we think, communicate and behave.


Research. Recently, we published the results from the largest telephone game experiment to examine what sticks when people retell stories and events, an approach called serial reproduction. We have conducted what is likely the largest retelling study to date with close to 20,000 retellings and 12,800 participants (see Breithaupt, Li, & Kruschke. Cognition & Emotion, 2022; and He, Breithaupt, Kuebler, & Hills. Nature: Scientific Reports, 2023). In these and other studies, we found that several emotions survived retellings with little change in intensity over three generations, while length, facts, and causal structure of the stories deteriorated. These findings are contradicting a long history of research focusing on the causal and factual structure of story retellings and of situation models that did not consider emotional dimensions or undercurrents. We conclude that some narrative emotions can operate as anchors for processing, remembering, and retelling stories. Now we investigate narrative emotions, the changes of empathy today, and non-human story telling (AI).


The lab is a creative place with many different projects and people from many fields. We employ a wide range of methods. Any team member can lead a project. And we all want to enjoy what we do. If you want to find out more, contact us or join us.  ​



Fritz Breithaupt’s The Narrative Brain, a redefinition of humans as narrative beings, has been chosen as the Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2023 in the category Medicine/Biology by the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research.

The jury statement reads as follows:
»We encounter narratives everywhere: In conversations, dreams, literature and much more. In this context, storytelling is not only beneficial, it also helps to create meaningful ways of thinking and living, and serves as a way of coping with tragic events. In his book, Fritz Breithaupt examines the effects narratives have on the brain and the connected mechanisms. Through brain research and interdisciplinary experiments, he comes to important conclusions. In one experiment, subjects are asked to continue telling a story; subsequently, researchers observe which parts of the story are remembered. It turns out that it is above all emotions that are remembered, not those described in the story, but those evoked by it. Breithaupt thus argues that narrative thinking enables empathy with other living beings. Moreover, narrative thinking makes people happy and should be encouraged for that reason alone.«

The audience award of the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research is presented every year in four categories: »Natural Sciences and Technology«, »Medicine and Biology«, »Humanities, Social Sciences and Cultural Sciences« and »Junior Non-Fiction«. A jury nominates the five best books in each category; afterwards, readers can vote for their favourite. The project is designed to communicate the achievements of research and the current state of the accomplishments – in those subject areas that interest the public.

The prize ceremony will take place on May 22, 2023, in Vienna.

Read more: News

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