Reading for Empathy

Damon is a psychology undergraduate student at University of Sussex. Recently Damon took over Daastan’s Instagram and hosted a live session about Reading for Empathy. Does book reading impact the development of empathy? Let’s see what Damon had to say about this intriguing topic. 

Researchers’ Interests in Reading and Empathy

Most of us can agree that nothing feels better than finding a really good book or gripping movie to delve deep into. Reading and binge-watching series on Netflix are activities that provide us with distraction from daily demands while at the same time initiating intellectual inspiration. Therefore, it has been argued that literary experiences may have a meaningful and profound effect on how we behave and feel in our daily lives. 

The personal insights that books have provided us have taught us a lot about ourselves and about humanity in general. As a result, researchers have tried to investigate the relationship between Reading and Empathy… And as might have been predicted, there seems to be a connection between the two! Now, the question still remains as to how this relation is formed, but Damon walked us through some promising theories that are currently held reliable. 

Experience Life Through The Experience of Literature

In short, theories posit that we are practicing empathy while reading a fictional story. The simulation of social experiences created in fiction is said to mirror comprehension processes that we use to make sense of our own real-life experiences. Due to this similarity, it can be argued that people enhance and practice their empathy when they are immersed in texts.

When we read books that capture our entire world, we begin to predict the reactions and actions of the characters, by inferring what they might be intending, feeling, and thinking. To make successful predictions, we must position ourselves in the shoes of the characters and experience the events as if they were our own experiences. Theories thereby argue that the self-concept captures the sympathy that is felt for the characters: this process improves perspective-taking abilities, which ultimately elevates empathy levels. Interestingly, neuroscientists have made fascinating discoveries regarding this process as well. 

Reading Stories to Activate The Brain’s Empathy Network

Neuroscientific studies have revealed that reading stories activate brain regions that are associated with the empathy network of humans. The events of a story can be simulated mentally while a text is read. This eventually integrates what is processed with existing experiences of the self. Consequently, empathy is influenced. In other words, this could also mean that reading about other people experiencing specific emotions and events can switch on matching neural networks in the brain as if you were experiencing the events yourself. This process would in turn improve the ability to empathize.

Is Empathy Nudged Only if a Story is Emotionally Accessible?

Another line of theory indicates that empathy is influenced only under the circumstance in which the reader is emotionally transported into the story. Indeed, it was reported by some research experiments that empathy was influenced only when participants had read fictional stories that had emotionally impacted them. On the contrary, the same effects were not replicated amongst participants who had read non-fiction. It was thus suggested that fiction may elicit different behavioral and emotional effects than non-fictional texts. 

One possible explanation behind this could be that scientific journals aim at seeking universal truths mainly through logic and argumentation. The narrative of fiction, on the other hand, seeks believability in a different light. A reader is handed the opportunity to become emotionally impacted by a fictional narrative that feels real within its context. Ideally there are characters to fall in love with, a plot to follow and beguiling settings to explore.  Nonfictional scientific thinking will not necessarily evoke the same type of feelings that a fictional narrative would induce. This could subsequently lead to disparate effects of Reading on Empathy.

In case you missed the live session, you can stream it here.


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