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Scotty: "Mister Spock, the ship feels wrong."

Spock: "'Feels', Mister Scott?"

Scotty: "I know it doesn't make sense. Instrumentation reads correct, but the feel is wrong. It's something I can't quite put into words."

Machine Empathy is the trope where a character can diagnose the state of a machine just by its "feel", such as how it vibrates or the noises it makes. Comparisons between the machine and a living person are often invoked. Unlike the Technopath, no supernormal abilities are involved; a character develops Machine Empathy simply from firsthand experience or knowledge of the hardware.

This is a popular talent for Mr. Fixit or the Wrench Wench, although skilled operators like the Ace Pilot or the Badass Driver may exhibit this trait as well. It's also a convenient excuse for why a well-placed smack instantly resolves the Plot-Driven Breakdown.

Contrast with Technopath, the phlebotinum-enhanced version of this trope. Also see Techno Wizard and Walking Techfix.


Anime & Manga

  • Both Herman Yandell and Elmer Snell from the second episode of MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity Front claim to have very temperamental machines (a tank and a Zaku, respectively) that break down despite regular maintainance saying they should still run. This seems to imply that the machines are empathic to their pilots, since it serves to tell them that the enemy they're looking for is not in the battlefield they were going to, and they want to save their strength for their fated encounter.
  • Spike of Cowboy Bebop averts this, much to the disgust of the mechanic that gave him the Swordfish. He actually first reveals his insensitivity when he destroys a malfunctioning Betamax player by kicking it.

 Spike: My ship works when I kick it...


Comic Books

  • Forge from the X-Men sometimes exhibits this ability, depending on the writer.
  • Characters in Sin City often determine the state of the cars they're in, including the engine types, just by starting them.


  • In the live-action Speed Racer movie, Rex teaches Speed to "drive, not steer" by listening to the feel of the car. Speed later uses this ability to intuitively jump-start the Mach 6 in the middle of the final Grand Prix.
  • Subverted in The Empire Strikes Back; the Millenium Falcon's hyperdrive repeatedly fails despite Han Solo's insistence that it's fixed.
  • In Star Trek: Insurrection, Captain Picard detects that the ship's torque sensors are slightly out of alignment because "they don't sound right."
    • Justified when we find out in the next movie that Picard once suffered from an illness that cranks up the sufferer's sensitivity to the point that every minor sound was agony. He got it cured, but it stands to reason that it left him with extremely acute hearing (by human standards).
  • Jake Holman from The Sand Pebbles feels more comfortable around machines than around people. Given the way he affectionately speaks to the ship's steam engine, it almost qualifies as Cargo Ship.


  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, it is stated that many pilots turn down their Inertial Dampening so that they can get a feel for space flying, even though Space Does Not Work That Way.
    • Engines still provide thrust that you'll be feeling in the cockpit with the damping dialed down.
    • Wedge Antilles is very, very good at this, as well as possessing Improbable Piloting Skills. These factors together make some people in-universe question the Normal part of his Badass Normal status. He knows from slight changes in how the engines sound if they've drifted out of alignment.
    • In one of the EU novels the Millenium Falcon gets a complete overhaul by New Republic techs (estimating that they replaced nearly 20% of the ship). Han spends the next several hours going through the ship and loosening bolts, stripping wires and generally messing things up, because "Those rattling noises are how he knows he's pushing her too hard".

Live Action TV

  • As the page quote shows, Scotty from the original Star Trek regularly invoked this trope.
    • As did Kirk, once. He claimed to recognize every noise the ship could make, even if damaged.
    • When Scotty appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he pointed out that he didn't like the Enterprise D because it doesn't cause the vibrations that his Enterprise had.
    • Picard did this once, too, able to tell by the sound when (insert TNG techspeak here) was off by three microns (that's really small.) However, it was revealed later that he'd had a genetic illness in which his senses were heightened to the point that every small sound was agony to him, presumably dealt with by Trekkian super-science later. You have to wonder if it's an intentionally-invoked Harsher in Hindsight moment - was it a captain's ship senses tingling, or do we know now that all along he's had this painful affliction that's less "gone away" and more "gone from agonizing down to just bearable?"
  • An implied ability of The Fonz, who could start or stop almost any device with a well-placed smack.
  • William Adama has a very personal relationship with the Battlestar Galactica, which goes beyond the relationship a captain has with his vessel. This is especially noticeable in the last episodes of season 4, when Adama refuses to use Cylon tech to repair the ship, not only because of the security risks involved, but also because it would turn the ship into something not entirely his.
    • Boomer's comments about the mechanics of a cylon raider are obvious allusions to her own cylon nature (at least to the audience), but definitely fall along the vein of this trope.
  • In Firefly, Kaylee has a Machine Empathy relationship with Serenity; she can instinctively know just by looking, hearing or feeling what the ship is doing and what's wrong with it. The Captain Mal and the Ace Pilot Wash have expressed similar sentiments, as has The Empath River. Not for nothing is Serenity considered part of the crew.

 Mal: Know what the first rule of flyin' is? [...] Love. You can know all the math in the 'Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as a turn in the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

  • In the Farscape episode "Back and Back and Back to the Future", the following exchange occurs between Zhaan and Rygel. Though Moya is a living being, the fact that she's a ship means Zhaan would have to have a certain level of Machine Empathy to detect the problem.

 Zhaan: Rygel. You've been aboard Moya longer than anyone else except Pilot. You know her sounds and her rhythms. Just stop and listen to her for a moment.

Rygel: Moya sounds fine.

Zhaan: Does she? Not to me. Something feels... out of balance.

  • Dean from Supernatural seems to have this in regards to his Impala.
    • Not surprise, it's been the boy's literal home for many a year. In fact, this concept becomes very important as the show goes on.
  • The Doctor and his TARDIS (a.k.a. You Sexy Thing).

Tabletop Games

  • The trope namer is the Role Playing Game Paranoia, where "Machine Empathy" is the name of a mutation that allows a character to influence how robots and The Computer react to him (though this ability falls under the Technopath trope). It's also the one mutation that, if found out, will get you AND your clone family terminated AND your gene template erased with extreme prejudice.
  • Presumably the theory behind the rule in one game that you get a bonus on vehicle operation rolls if you've been operating the same vehicle for at least two years. Not the same make and model, the exact same vehicle.


  • In this Freefall strip, Florence mentions the phenomena as she listens to learn how the Savage Chicken sounds in flight.

Web Original

  • Chakona Space gives us Chakat Goldfur, one of the Star Corps' best technicians. Hir Talent even gets lampshaded at different points.

Western Animation

  • Brock Samson has demonstrated the ability to sense when someone's in his car even if he's not physically present. Hank, upon witnessing a demonstration of this talent (which, despite the presence of superpowers and magic in this setting, seems to be purely mundane), comments to another character "I've seen him do that from a continent away."

Real Life

  • Truth in Television: it's possible to invoke this with a car or whatever that you're very familiar with, especially if it's a problem it had before.
    • After driving a car long enough you can simply feel how much to turn, how much brake you need to apply, etc. You become one with the car.
  • The same goes for PCs and just about any other reasonably complicated machine that can be customized by its owner (or simply needs repairing a lot).
  • Also quite common for lab workers- at first all the lab equipment is just a noisy, humming, hissing, and beeping mess, but after a while you learn where each sound comes from and what to do when a sound stops or changes. Some critical equipment is even built to chirp every few seconds so that if it breaks you'll know right away- you learn to ignore the sound when it's working but it's very noticeable when the alert stops.
    • Manufacturing plants, too. You stand in the middle of the plant trying to place which "clunk" or "clank" sounds different or is not occurring. More experienced employees catch each other's eye and tilt their heads back and forth like dogs, while newbies watch, confused.
  • Lifer light-aircraft pilots almost invariably develop this to the point of being contagious, even to people with no demonstrable mechanical knowledge.
  • Any mechanic worth their tool box will develop this with enough experience on a given model.
  • The US Air Force has a special division nowadays with specific machines to listen to other machines, so this happens even without a human operator.
  • This is extremely noticeable with firearms. This is the whole reason soldiers and even some police train to death with one or two weapons, so they have this ability. Considering the raw amount of energy going through a firearm, its no wonder you're going to get some sort of tactile feedback.