Alex Kalisperas considers the way in which our reading of literature informs and expands our emotional capabilities, and helps us to view the world from different perspectives.
You know when you’re reading a novel and you know that a character is not behaving the way they morally should? And yet you still care for them. Understand them. Feel for them.
It’s that connection with a text that makes me consider that literature does play a role in cultivating our empathy. In real life we might not have any understanding towards why someone might cheat. Yet in a novel the psyche behind that of a cheat might suddenly make sense to us.
Readers: keep on reading. Reading inspires empathy and the world needs a whole lot of that right now.
— Hailey LeBlanc (@hailsinbookland) February 2, 2017
Fundamentally, literature has the power to engage the reader with experiences that they are not familiar with. It seems clear to me that the consequence of this is that it then helps the reader empathise with them.
Historically, this appears to be the case. Novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner expose the reader to the harsh reality of other peoples’ lives in order to generate compassion and understanding.
While the former emphasises that loss is universal and not colour blind, the latter imparts a sense of what war is really like. One was crucial in fuelling the movement that succeeded in abolishing slavery in the United States, the other deepens our understanding of the experiences of war in Afghanistan. Essentially, literature is the tool used to help us see life through another person’s eyes.
It is precisely because of this that the author Malorie Blackman describes reading as an exercise in learning to empathise; ‘an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while’. Indeed, in her novel Noughts and Crosses, Blackman literally makes her reader walk in someone else’s shoes. In the world of Noughts and Crosses, it is the White population, not Black, that has been oppressed, stripped of their rights and downtrodden by society. She forces her White reader to imagine an unknown experience. In doing so, Blackman inverts reality.
In this way, the experience of reading can help us to empathise because it helps us to try and understand the other’s pain.
It is this kind of bluntness that is met with little resistance when it is in fictional form. Why? I think at a time when people are so alienated from politics and, at times, desensitized from the horrors of the news, the world of imagination holds greater value because we allow ourselves to be more perceptive to different ideas.
What I mean by that is not that we are all selfish or lazy, but rather that it’s hard to truly imagine what someone is going through, whether it is the crippling nature of anxiety or the harsh and scary reality of racial discrimination, if you’ve never experienced it yourself.
This is where literature can help; a novel places distance between yourself and your world. It is this distance that takes us out of our own psyches and lets us discover new ones. The definition of empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another. In this way, the experience of reading can help us to empathise because it helps us to try and understand the other’s pain.
As an English student and avid reader, I am always amazed by the grip literature can have over individuals. On multiple occasions I have often lost my sense of hearing, so engrossed am I in what I am reading. Consumed by the almost trance-like, mesmerizing experience of reading, I find that my surroundings drift away. It is almost as if I am being transported to another realm.
Psychologist Victor Nell likens this ‘reading state’ to that of a hypnotic trance. After conducting a study into the psychology behind the pleasures of reading, which he documents in his publication ‘Lost in a Book: Psychology for Reading for Pleasure’, Nell concludes that books are essentially like dreams and like dreams ‘they have the power to change consciousness’. The study found that when people were enjoying the novel that they began reading more slowly, which then meant they contemplated exactly what they were reading, reflected, and enriched their own ideas.
The power of a good novel is to make us view the world afresh.
The process of opening your mind to new possibilities is arguably the only way we can begin to understand the perspective of another person. Without truly understanding what others are feeling, we cannot be genuinely empathetic. That is the difference between sympathy and empathy; with empathy one actually has to understand and engage with those emotions.
In order to be more empathic, we have to imagine what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes rather than simply feeling the shallowness of pity. The power of a good novel is to make us view the world afresh. I would argue that it is this all consuming nature of reading that allows us, undisturbed and unperturbed by the hustle and bustle of our own lives, to truly commit to thinking about an experience other than our own.
Further studies also support this idea. A study carried out by the New School for Research in 2013 found that reading literary fiction can enhance an individual’s ability to understand and detect other peoples’ emotions. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, gave their 1,000 participants a range of different texts, fiction and non-fiction, across a series of five experiments.
Through various Theory of the Mind techniques, used to measure the accuracy in which participants could identify other people’s emotions, it was revealed that people who had read the literary texts had scored much higher than those who had read non-fiction. Kidd and Castano argued in their paper, which was published in Science, that it is sometimes the ambiguity and at times incompleteness within literature that forces people to try and figure out what the characters are thinking for themselves. Kidd elaborates that ‘the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a stimulator of social experience; it is a social experience.’
Literature reminds us that we are more similar than we are different; we might just experience different circumstances.
In 2016, the psychologists were at it again. In their paper, Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction relate to Mentalising, Kidd and Castrano revealed that those who showed familiarity with literary fiction, essentially those who were habitual readers, were reliably better at their theory of mind performance. They argued that their findings revealed that different types of literature affect our psychological process in different ways.
Literary fiction challenges social changes, while genre fiction uses characters that we immediately recognise to teach us about how we construct our national and cultural identities. The conclusion of these two separate studies is that it means that reading literature engages with the same part of the brain that deals with social experiences. So what does that really mean? It means that literature has scientifically been proven to play a vital role in cultivating our social empathy.
The American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that it is this ability – the ability to make us understand and share feelings – that is the beauty of all literature. He said, ‘You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong’. Literature reminds us that we are more similar than we are different; we might just experience different circumstances.
For me, this means that literature is undoubtedly a gateway to new ideas and perspectives. The more we read, the more we open ourselves to understanding. And the more we open ourselves to understanding, the better we empathise.
Do you think reading makes us more empathetic? Comment below or get in touch!