If you pay attention to the digest news blurbs that flow around the Internet and clutter our mental worlds these days, you might have caught various announcements of studies that prove that readers of fiction rate very highly on “empathy scales.” These tests measure the ability of an individual to understand the feelings and attitudes of other people, broadly known as social acumen. We probably take this premise for granted over in the Liberal Arts building, which houses not just English but our sister departments in the Humanities (History, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Philosophy). What’s interesting is that some of the studies use as a “control” a group of individuals who read more expository non-fiction than narrative fiction, and it turns out that “reading” in general does not cultivate empathy: readers of fiction scored much higher than readers of nonfiction in social acumen. The studies were conducted by a team that allowed a psychologist, novelist, and literary theorist, Keith Oatley, to work with a cross-disciplinary team of scientists, headed by Raymond Mar, to design studies that attempt to account for the specific ways fiction cultivates empathy. (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/chaning_our_minds). A key factor is apparently the ability to enter into a simulated world in a comprehensive way, to be “sucked into” a narrative, one of the fundamental pleasures of reading that so often draw us to the study of literature. And of course, many readers take a keen pleasure from engaging with the characters, who simulate—in admittedly dynamic, exaggerated, and intentionally distorted form, from time to time—the human beings about whom our brains are primed to be curious. The study found that nonfiction reading, generally lacking such a “peopled” environment, does not allow us to cultivate those social simulation skills to the same extent. (See, among many other papers, “Bookworms vs. Nerds,” 2006: http://www.yorku.ca/mar/papers.html).
While humanists typically respond to such studies with something like self-congratulation or utter mystification as to why one would need to study something so obvious, I’d argue we increasingly need a new vocabulary to describe the importance of reading literature. For example, to see the study as obvious might suggest we do not recognize how rare such sustained, absorptive attention is in our present cultural climate, which rather encourages rapid-fire response that tends to fall back on existing beliefs and values. Despite the theoretical access to a world-wide community dizzying in its diversity, we tend to fall back on the “like-minded” folks with whom we already share a system of values. Empathy—the real, hard, and life-changing kind that challenges what we know about ourselves—requires a certain courage, and literature has historically been a powerful tool in cultivating that courage.
In literature we find a means to “simulate,” as our cognitive scientists tell us, the forms of life and the forms of feeling of people we have never met, and can never meet. Through that encounter, clothed in language that dazzles our mind and tickles our brain’s creative chemistry, we grow a whole new set of cognitive muscles, become more capable, more capacious, and yes, more empathetic with our fellow human, and non-human, beings. In a world of hurry and haste, rush and rash action, the slow, patient attention required to read and think with a great author offers us more than a respite, but a survival skill that sharpens our minds to be our best social selves. In a culture in which we have been seduced into adopting a pernicious notion of life as a good to be consumed, literature offers the goods in a much fuller sense: an inexhaustible supply of rich questions to be pursued, rich experiences to be drawn upon, that do not merely affirm what we already know, but tell us something new about the world in which we live.
We don’t need science to tell us why we love literature; but we can use this science as a way of re-thinking what that love might mean, and how that love might grow. Our students, our alumni/ae, and our faculty are engaged in an ongoing social experiment, one that is at least 3,500 years old, of shaping imaginative worlds out of words. To keep that experiment vital, we’ve got to keep reading, and telling our story about the power of the written word to the wide, wide world.
If you want to share your own story about the way reading and writing literature has helped to shape your life, post a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!
Yours from the margin of the book—
Associate Chair / Director of Graduate Studies