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The Empathy Instinct

Bluecoat recently had the pleasure of welcoming Sir Peter Bazalgette to the city, to discuss the release of his most recent book The Empathy Instinct. This series of essays explores the influence of arts in creating a fairer, more empathetic and harmonious society.  

Sir Peter Bazalgette was knighted in the New Years Honours List of 2012 for services to broadcasting. He is the Chairman of ITV and has also held a number of other prestigious positions; he is currently serving as Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation and acted as Chair of Arts Council England from 2013-2017.

All of Sir Peter’s endeavours are linked by one thematic strand; his desire to better understand humanity and the workings of society. In his much acclaimed book The Empathy Instinct Sir Peter examines the consequences of the twenty-first century’s “empathy deficit” - a state of mind identified by Barack Obama, 2006 - from both a scientific and social standpoint.

Sir Peter undertakes a comprehensive study into the way as a species humans have a natural instinct to empathise with those near to us, or most like us, geographically and socially. He argues that while we are able to empathise with those particular individuals on a much deeper level we need to understand how difference can bind us together too.

The book is dedicated Nobel prizewinners Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, the individuals responsible for inventing the MRI scan; a scientific advancement that has enabled a more thorough understanding of the brain. Whilst this breakthrough informs much of the narrative, Sir Peter believes that while humanity is engineered to behave in a certain way it does not mean we cannot evolve and improve our empathetic understanding.

Sir Peter also explores empathy through the perspective of the arts as well as science, looking specifically at how it has the potential to bridge divides within society and close cultural and socio-political gaps; art is what Sir Peter describes as “the bridge between one mind and another”.

Sir Peter reflected that arts centres such as Bluecoat enables people to come together, explore their creativity, celebrate togetherness and our differences. He reflected on our long history as an arts centre - the UK’s earliest running continuously since early 1900s - as well as our contemporary ambition to be as inclusive as possible. This ethos is reflected in many of the projects we are celebrating this year including plans to mark ten years of Blue Room, our arts programme for learning disabled adults.

Since 2008, three groups of Blue Room artists have met weekly at the gallery to explore the exhibitions and create their own artwork. Members are supported to develop creative and social skills, build their confidence and achieve greater independence. In addition to Blue Room, Bluecoat’s Out of the Blue programme takes weekly art clubs to children aged 5-11 across the city and is led in part by learning disabled adults from Blue Room acting as artist-facilitators. Out of the Blue has been running since February 2014 and currently takes place in areas of Liverpool including Norris Green, Anfield and Granby.

Additionally Bluecoat’s upcoming exhibition, Euphonia by artist Emma Smith which explores the music of social communication - from chit-chat to singing together - has seen the artist working with many collaborators including scientists, musicians, psychologists and community groups that use Bluecoat on a regular basis.

Smith has for example been working with Choir With No Name, made up of individuals who have been affected by issues such as homelessness and for whom singing and cooking together at Bluecoat has positive outcomes including positive effects on well being and self-esteem. It is the artist's interest in how we unconsciously as well as consciously use our voices for social bonding that has driven her Wellcome Trust funded research here at Bluecoat.

Whilst charities such as Bluecoat exist, with engaging and all-inclusive art outreach programmes and aims, perhaps we can begin to turn around society’s empathy deficit that and begin the process of creating a more civil society. After all, empathy is instinct.

If you would like to help support Bluecoat and the work we do, you can help in so many ways. For just £35 a year you can volunteer your time, donate and  become a Bluecoat Member.

Image credits:

The Empathy Instinct by Sir Peter Bazalgette, 2017. Courtesy of Hodder and Stoughton.

Empathy, 2018. Courtesy of

Blue Room, Brian Roberts.


Leith, Evening Standard, ‘The Empathy Instinct by Peter Bazalgette - review’, 2017.

Obama, Barack Obama "Empathy Deficit", 2006,

Bazalgette, The Empathy Instinct, 2017.


Bluecoat is a registered charity (700862) and a limited company registered in England (02246627)Registered office: Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool, L1 3 BX


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Bluecoat is Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, the oldest in the UK. Our landmark building, located in the ...

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