Visualizing empathy: artist Lisa Park uses biofeedback to explore human emotion

Park transforms physiological functions like heart rate, blood pressure or skin temperature into vibrant installations.

By Keph Senett

Lisa Park always wanted to be an artist. More sensitive than other children, she was preoccupied with big questions and thoughts that she experienced “like an invisible noise.”

“Everything in the world has a purpose,” she explains. “Nature and artifacts like buildings, cars and phones have functions.” The purpose of human beings, however, wasn’t clear to her. Making art helped her quiet her mind. “In the process of drawing, my mind was emptied, and I felt more comfortable than ever.”

Artist Lisa Park

It’s likely that she was experiencing “flow,” also referred to as being “in the zone,” a psychological term that describes a mental state of complete involvement, focus, and enjoyment that also often alters a person’s sense of time. “It’s probably because I [was] fully present in the moment.”

Park’s fascination with her own internal states became the overriding theme of her burgeoning, early career, but something changed when she was introduced to biofeedback technology while getting her master’s at New York University. Biofeedback measures information about physiological functions like heart rate, blood pressure or skin temperature. The data is represented by sound, light or other imagery—now Park could make the invisible visible.

Sensors and sensibility

Born in the United States, Park spent her childhood in Korea, leaving at 19 to earn an undergraduate degree at the Art Center College of Design in California followed by NYU. Her diverse experiences were enlightening. “Different countries have different ways of expressing emotions depending on their cultural codes,” she says. “Emotions are common beyond individual differences. I think of emotions and empathy as another ‘language’ that can be understood without anyone teaching them.”

Biofeedback offered a new way of communicating. “I have a phobia of butterflies. I wanted to reveal how my fears, associated with my heart rate, are translated into sound.” To achieve this, she set up a system to modulate her voice according to her heart rate. On the day of the performance, she wore a heart rate monitor and a plastic orb over her head into which she released dozens of butterflies. “Obviously, my heart rate increased immediately, and the sound was adjusted accordingly,” she recalls. “It was an experimental performance, and I have been working with biofeedback technology since then.”

Emotions are common beyond individual differences. I think of emotions and empathy as another ‘language’ that can be understood without anyone teaching them.

—Lisa Park

To the heart rate monitor, Park added a commercial electroencephalography sensor that surveys the brain’s electrical activity. Her 2013 performance, Eunoia, continued where the butterfly presentation left off, translating Park’s physical states into sound.

This time, though, she noticed something new. “There was an invisible dialogue happening between me and the audience,” she recalls. “I was influenced by their presence during the performance, which affected my brainwave data, and the audience was influenced by my biofeedback results.”

Over the next several years, Park experimented with ways to visualize her emotions, working with textiles, paint and computer renderings. Her technological arsenal expanded to include a Muse brainwave headset, custom-built software and apps, and fiber optic bundles.

Exercising empathy

“Empathy” is a term that’s only around a hundred years old, and in its short history, it’s been defined in various—and sometimes opposite—ways. In the mid-1900s, psychologists began to study and measure empathy, and these early inquiries helped anchor it as a feature of interpersonal connections. These days, empathy is popularly understood as the ability to feel or understand what another person is experiencing, to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” The trait has caught the attention of scientists working in disciplines ranging from primatology to neuroscience.

In 2014, a research team led by Jorge Moll of the Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Unit at D’Or Institute for Research and Education in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, made the news when they published in the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE. According to their results, humans might be able to use neurofeedback to “train” for empathy. “[The results demonstrate] that humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures of tenderness/affection, unlocking new possibilities for promoting prosocial emotions and countering antisocial behavior,” the team wrote. Though the study was exploratory, it captured popular imagination. What would it mean to the world if we could intentionally flex our empathy muscles?

Although she hadn’t heard of the Moll study, in 2014 Lisa Park was also experimenting with empathy. Eunoia II was designed to impress her own emotional state into water in the form of ripples, a new way of visualizing her internal processes for an audience. “My body was a medium for expressing my inner feelings and physiological changes as visual and auditory representations,” she explains.

Eunoia II courtesy of Lisa Park

Park’s work is all about human connection, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before she sought to harness the biofeedback of her audience.

“In an increasingly digitized and globalized world, we are more connected than ever before,” she explains. “We spend more time communicating screen-to-screen than face-to-face, and the pandemic has certainly accelerated this.” We use emojis and text to express our feelings, she says, but these are inadequate tools. “It cannot fully communicate the experience of a warm handshake, a congratulatory hug, a sympathetic pat on the back or a gentle kiss. Human-to-human touch is what creates essential attachments between people.”

In 2018, Lisa Park’s Blooming opened at Mana Contemporary Art in New Jersey. An interactive audiovisual installation that explores the themes of social ties, emotion, and touch, Blooming takes the form of a life-sized, 3D cherry blossom tree. “In Asian culture, the cherry tree symbolizes social bonding, continuity and spiritual beauty. Cherry blossom festivals are a chance to celebrate with friends, lovers and family.”

Using MIO (heart rates wristbands), Kinect (a gesture tracking sensor), and custom-made touch sensors, Blooming responds to the neurofeedback of its participants—or more specifically, to the data produced by their human interaction.

“As the audience holds hands or hugs, the digital cherry tree blooms or releases petals,” Park explains. “The color of the petals changes to white, pink, or red.” In Blooming, neurofeedback like heart rates, gestures, and skin conductivity become proxies for understanding intimacy.

Blooming courtesy of Lisa Park

Perhaps not surprisingly, some participants experience heightened emotions. “I believe touch is empathetic,” Park says. “Even between family members and friends, hugging or holding hands is not common. Blooming translates the essential desire for human connection into an experiential way of bringing people together by using touch to convey emotion.”

So, could we use art like Blooming to train for empathy? Park doesn’t see the question as her concern. “When applying biofeedback technology, I take a poetic rather than a scientific approach to my work.”

Twinkle twinkle

In 2021, Park was invited to exhibit at the Children’s Art Museum of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, Korea. Twinkle Twinkle picks up where her previous work, LUMAa collaboration with the artist Kevin Siwoff, left off. That is, it seeks to inspire a dreamy experience that feels like having childhood memories.

Luma courtesy of Lisa Park

In Twinkle Twinkle, thousands of optical fibers use sensors to brighten or dim light depending on the distance between the artwork and the audience. When children approach the artwork—colorful, hairy wall-mounted semicircles that bring to mind sea urchins—glows like a firefly.

“When I was young, I used to play outside with other children,” Park recalls. “These days, children spend more time using devices such as computers or smartphones. Due to the pandemic, they are getting used to non-face-to-face communication more and more. I wanted to present work that children could have fun with.”

Lead photo of Harmony II courtesy of Lisa Park