being human: on the job training

The co-stereotype of someone who’s “bookish” is absolutely wrong, as it turns out. That kid with her nose buried in a book all the time is actually more empathetic than her non-reader counterparts.

So says “Changing Our Minds…By Reading Fiction” (and it’s worth reading the entire article.) Their thesis:

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

They tested this several ways, although I’m sure greater minds than mine would be able to argue with their methodology. The idea is that because the brain does well what it practices (remember the 10,000 hours thing from last year?) people who read fiction are practicing “being” other people.

And if you practice being someone else or thinking like someone else, then you become more empathetic simply because you’re so used to doing it. You become more practiced at thinking thoughts in a way that would never come naturally on your own. Hence, when you see someone making a different decision, you can more easily follow that person’s logic without having to turn that person into a villain. You can predict other people’s feelings. You can meet others’ needs.

My next question: how does sharply limiting the kind of fiction you read affect that ability to empathize? For a while I was reading Christian inspirational fiction and I stopped because I kept finding it so unsatisfying: everyone thought the same way. The bad guys did bad things for cartoony reasons, not as believable characters. Because, of course, it was message-driven fiction.

But if the authors of this article are right, the best way to drive home a message is to create believable characters (which we want to do anyhow) and allow the reader to fully inhabit that character’s headspace. Give that person a chance to think like a politician / a widow / a doctor / a slave trader / a Martian, and that other person will be less knee-jerk judgmental about the other. Because for a little while, the Other was Oneself.

Wow — that kind of throws my job as a writer into a new light. I’m not an entertainer after all. I’m a portal into The Other.

And Mom, you can stop worrying now. All those times I brought a book on family outings or locked myself in my room reading? It was just training for the job of loving my neighbor as myself.


About philangelus

Mom, freelance writer, novelist, angelphile, Catholic, know-it-all.
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6 Responses to being human: on the job training

  1. Uninvoked says:

    I can really see that. My fiance is a very caring, loving individual. He is not in the slightest empathetic. He doesn’t read. I do read, and I am very empathetic. Perhaps reading is what has made the difference.

  2. Ivy says:

    Message driven fiction is bad for this because it’s, by its nature, plot-driven fiction. We have examples running the gambit in science fiction and fantasy, particularly, since there is a certain intellectual distance built in.

    War of the Worlds was a warning against England’s involvement in India. “Tread carefully,” it seemed to say, “Because we don’t know what seemingly inconsequential thing we might find there that could destroy us.” It was subtle and well done, but it’s not insight into any one mindset.

    The Golden Compass doesn’s that it puts message over story logic. I’ve read the book. The gun in chapter one is a terrible person doing terrible things to kids. The payoff is that terrible person trying to do that terrible thing to the protagonist, who is a kid. The real problem that it’s too obvious in what its trying to say, and Pullman offended many readers in his choice of a target. If instead of “The Church” the bad guys were “The Aolites” or some other made up entity–if the biblical references were more disguised–a larger group of readers would have enjoyed it.

    C.S. Lewis tried to put that distance in Narnia, but the message was so heavy-handed it damaged the story. If you didn’t buy into the link that Arslan was, not only G-d but a kind of sadistic parody of G-d (“I will not let save your poor dying mother. Or maybe I will let you save her. See me torment a little child to show my power?”) the story falls apart. Even that has too close a link by name. The enemies of Arslan are called the “Calormen” which isn’t that far a cry from “colored men”, especially given the amount of attention the text gives to their dark skin.

    Madeline L’Engel crafted her A Wrinkle in Time with a great deal more skill. The message is so subdued as to barely touch the surface of the story. She drives unerringly to her point, but the story is built in such a way that the characters would make every choice that they make. Hers was a mastery few writers can approach.

    The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does this by posing the point as the story question, and then letting the events unfold to answer it.

    I would think the best way to let readers step into the shoes of the Other is just to write compelling characters. What is the Other to your reader? If your reader has lived on a farm in Nebraska her whole life, the life of a New Yorker is Other. If a reader has lived in New York her whole life, the life of a farm girl in Nebraska is Other.

    As to limiting reading, I think it depends on how you limit it. If you’re going to read only mysteries, for example, you’re going to encounter a whole host of different characters with different view points, different backgrounds, and different world views.

  3. Ken Rolph says:

    The enemies of Arslan are called the “Calormen” which isn’t that far a cry from “colored men”

    Lewis coined the term using the Latin “calor” which is related to heat. We get words like calorie from it. Things are described as Calormene, which is getting further away from “coloured”. Remember that Lewis would have thought “colour” not “color”. The culture he describes is very Arabian Nights — Indian, Ottoman Turkish, Persian.

    • Ivy says:

      Oh, Muslim-bashing then. That’s not really an improvement. I think I’ll just stick with A Wrinkle in Time as a recommendation for kids. It’s brilliant. Or maybe Spider-Man.

      Funny aside, when I was in my first year of JHS, I was sent on a “community service” thing (as in they made us all miss class, and tests, to go serve the community) and I pulled the task of helping a kindergarten class. My assignment–teach a kid to read after the teacher gave up on him. He loved Spider-Man, so I picked up a stack of Spider-Man comics and we read those together. At the end, he could get through most of a comic by himself.

      The teacher was furious (because I was rotting his brain with the comics) but the mom was thrilled (because he could read at all). I figure “building” is spelled the same in “Got to get a web line to that building” as it is in “It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills” (the beginning of the description of Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice).

  4. cricketB says:

    Absolutely depends on the books, and how you read them. Mom and I read for the characters and insights. Dad reads for the plot. Guess which one of my parents is more empathetic? I read tech fast and novels slow. Husband is the other way. (Important to know when deciding who reads what first.)

    I didn’t get the Christian references in Narnia when I read it as a kid, but my early religious education was rather sparse. A few years of Sunday school. I was thrilled with the new variation of near-omnipotence. Great brain-fodder. I didn’t realize Aslan was supposed to be “The One and Only God” until the final book, and didn’t enjoy that book as much. I didn’t believe it was Christian based until several who know more about Christian history and symbolism than I do said so. Much of it is still good advice, although some is a bit dated.

    I need to re-read Wrinkle.

    Dad learned to read with comics. These days, the teachers count anything with recognizable letters as reading, although they hope the fraction of actual sentences goes up with grade. Yes, cereal boxes were listed as suitable entries for the reading logs. (I hate reading logs. Son said, “I won’t read it if I have to put it in the reading log.” Dtr spends a day with the bookshelf, then has to remember which ones she read and how long in each one.)

  5. Wow, another benefit to reading! I’ll have to print this and show my kids 🙂

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