Monday, April 15, 2013

Empathy

A couple weeks back, the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour ran a story about Bringing Babies to the Classroom -- not to teach the babies how to read and write, but to teach grade school students, through their interaction with babies, to empathize with others. 

I found this a very interesting report -- partly because of the unique approach to the problem of teasing and bullying, but mostly because of the revelation that empathy is a skill like any other: although we are born with the ability to empathize, that tendency must be reinforced, practiced, and honed.  Otherwise it will be expressed poorly, if at all.

While watching the news report that evening, I had one of those light bulb moments, when it occurred to me that reading fiction might accomplish the same thing that bringing babies into the classroom does. 

After all, as a writer I have put myself in the head of characters from very different worlds -- and in so doing, have come to better understand (I think) alternative world views and psychological/emotional frameworks.

As a reader I have wandered across countries and through time, surviving the dustbowl as a migrant farm worker, laboring on the banana plantations of South America, witnessing a woman tortured and burned for witchcraft, solving murder mysteries in a medieval monastery, building cathedrals in Medieval England and Spain. . .

The first edition of One Hundred Years
of Solitude
The list goes on and on. 

Has all this reading honed my skills at empathy?

Or is my thirst for the experience of empathy one of the things that drives me to read?

Empathy, as defined by the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is the capacity to recognize emotions being experienced by another.  The concept was first elaborated by 19th century German philosophers. Although the idea of empathy has been around for a while, exactly how it works, and why, is not well understood.

Some evolutionary biologists consider the capacity for empathy a prerequisite for positive social interactions and altruistic behavior.

Most recently, empathy has become a central focus of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in schools across the United States -- such as the one covered by MacNeil Lehrer -- that have significantly improved students' social and emotional competencies. 

It turns out I'm not the first person to suspect novels also help us learn empathy.  In fact, this idea had apparently gained wide acceptance until Susan Keen shook the foundations of the assumption with her 2007 book Empathy and the Novel

Keen did not go so far as to claim novels do not inspire empathy; she simply pointed out the uncomfortable truth that no studies had been done to test this idea, and therefore no data existed to support it. 

Belli's memoir opens with a riveting
scene in which we learn what it is like
to be a young Nicaraguan woman
learning how to fire an AK47.
Psychologists and social biologists have taken up the challenge set forth by Keen, and now studies are being published that indicate a link between novels and empathy. Even light weight, sheer-entertainment-style fantasy such as Harry Potter and the Twilight series appears to teach young readers something about how to relate to the Other. 

While this is all very compelling, there remains a lot of work to be done, both in terms of understanding where empathy comes from and why it is important for social creatures like us.

We can't really do a rigorous scientific study of the relationship between novels and empathy on Heroines of Fantasy.  But I thought it would be interesting to collect some anecdotal evidence from our readers and followers. 

So here are some questions I have for you:

What stories you have read (or written) that have helped  you empathize with the Other?

What do you think is the relationship between fiction, empathy, and positive social interaction? 

Two questions that give us a lot to chew on, I know.  But we've got a week to think and talk about it.  I'm looking forward to seeing your comments!


The caption for this photo, taken from The Guardian, reads
"in touch with their inner vampires".  Perhaps they are, but
does this make Meyer's fans better mortals as well?

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich



15 comments:

Trekelny said...

HI Karin,
I'm scared to go first. Can anyone empathize!

This is a great topic and until recently I had never thought about it. But after years of chronicling about Quiet Men- driven to do but unwilling to talk- I've been carried smack into the most alien territory in my heroic fantasy chronicles. The third installment of my current series focuses on- yike- a female, ambitious, attractive, witty, and able to see the future (while I struggle to understand the present).

I freely admit, I'm petrified of W'starrah Altieri. And I'm not sure I approve of her either- but I never had that problem with some of those not-strictly-sane heroes I've been used to these many years.

Not surprisingly, my pace has slowed to a crawl. But getting her story right is challenging me and I think the writing improves.

AE Marling said...

So happy you wrote this article. I have long suspected that reading gives people practice of emphasizing with others and seeing things from other perspectives. First, the non-readers I've read are often the most opinionated and unable to see the merit of other perspectives and lifestyles. Second, in fiction you see the different thought patterns of so many protagonists that you gain a wealth of perspective.

Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, I love this. And it is something I've actually been thinking a whole lot about recently. I think, as a writer, I need to be better-than-most at seeing through other people's eyes. I believe I accomplish that--but does this ability make me a BETTER writer? Or do I write BECAUSE of this ability? Or both. Both, I suspect.

The reality is that, you--and Keen--are right. Reading does inspire empathy, as long as one is reading about people who are not exactly like them. I think the theory should be amended to read, DIVERSE reading helps one learn empathy. Although, I will say that I cannot think of a single fiction novel that doesn't present more than one social point-of-view.

I find, strangely enough, that although I am a 49 year old woman, I write really good young male characters. FLAWED male characters! I do write flawed female characters, but with the males, it's second-nature. I don't have to THINK about it, really. When I'm writing a flawed female character, I often have to try a bit harder.
Over the years, I've come to the realization that I am a strong woman, so writing anything less from the female perspective confuddles me. Linhare from Beyond the Gate, coming out in August,was especially hard for me to get right. She is strong, but in a very different way than I am—she is more subtle where I am anything but.
In coming to realize this, I've been able to apply my ability to see through the Other's eyes to female characters as well--but it took a conscious understanding of what was going on in my head, while doing the same for males did not.
Kinda crazy.

Great post, love! Oh, I love this. And it is something I've actually been thinking a whole lot about recently. I think, as a writer, I need to be better-than-most at seeing through other people's eyes. I believe I accomplish that--but does this ability make me a BETTER writer? Or do I write BECAUSE of this ability? Or both. Both, I suspect.

The reality is that, you--and Keen--are right. Reading does inspire empathy, as long as one is reading about people who are not exactly like them. I think the theory should be amended to read, DIVERSE reading helps one learn empathy. Although, I will say that I cannot think of a single fiction novel that doesn't present more than one social point-of-view.

I find, strangely enough, that although I am a 49 year old woman, I write really good young male characters. FLAWED male characters! I do write flawed female characters, but with the males, it's second-nature. I don't have to THINK about it, really. When I'm writing a flawed female character, I often have to try a bit harder.
Over the years, I've come to the realization that I am a strong woman, so writing anything less from the female perspective confuddles me. Linhare from Beyond the Gate, coming out in August,was especially hard for me to get right. Linhare is strong, just in a very different way than I am--and that is what confuddled me.
In coming to realize this, I've been able to apply my ability to see through the Other's eyes to female characters as well--but it took a conscious understanding of what was going on in my head, while doing the same for males did not.
Kinda crazy.

Great post, love!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow -- Trekelny, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing a little of your new adventures with W'starrah. She sounds very cool.

When I started my second novel, the villain I was working with literally made me ill every time I wrote a scene from his point of view. I eventually got over those gut reactions and made my "peace", so to speak, with his way of being -- and was able to finish the novel without ever once vomitting, which was a good thing.

Kind of the opposite situation, I suspect, from what you are going through. But in either case, stepping into the shoes of a character so thoroughly different from anything you've done before can be a transformative experience. One of the great experiences, I think, of writing.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Alan! It's good to see you here. Glad you enjoyed the post. I also think that reading does help us exercise empathy, especially when stories include diverse perspectives of different characters.

One of Keen's arguments, though, was that readers might also seek stories that reinforce their own perspectives, which would do little to increase empathy.

I can see how this would happen, but -- like you -- most of the avid readers I know are in search of experiencing other perspectives and lifestyles.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri! Glad you enjoyed this. What a nice coincidence that we've all had empathy on the brain lately, so that we can come together and empathize with each other about empathy. ;)

I love your revision of the hypothesis: DIVERSE reading helps improve empathy.

Don't fool yourself, Terri -- You are good at writing all your characters, male or female, young or old. It may feel like some come easier than others, but they are all complete & complex by the tiem you finish. And that's what counts!

Can't wait to see you in VAB. Less than 3 weeks to go!

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I suspect reading makes people think they empathise with the characters, but in all honesty, I think it merely allows them to empathise with characters who are presented in a way that they find acceptable.

Who, for instance, empathises with Begsby in Trainspotting? Yet despite his odious, bigoted and violent behaviour, he is human and surely needs understood.

Take Game of Thrones. Who (other than me) empathised with Jaime in the first book? Yet by book three he is a hero because the author manipulates the reader to make him appear so. Now you may argue that this was a clever device to make us realise we should not discount people as mere villains at face value. But does such a device really make someone faced by (say) a modern Ali Khamenei or Kim Jong-un think 'oh, they might just be misunderstood?' I doubt it.

I tend much more to the fact that the novel (or any form of entertainment) may make any given character sympathetic to a degree (look how many folk warmed to the murderous Pullo and Vorenus in HBO's Rome, but I doubt very much that the next time they hear that Iran or North Korea are behaving belligerently, or when they hear of someone who has pushed their wife off a balcony or who murders the boyfriend of a girl they find attractive, that they will consider them as human beings.

The novel as a medium for social improvement is overstated in my view -- it is not worthless in that regard either, but is no panacea, or even tonic.

Terri-Lynne said...

I have to disagree with you just a little bit there, Pongo, but only a little. I do believe that the vast majority of people, yes, even readers, skim the surface of things, see the face value and little more until it's more obviously displayed. They tend to see the points and empathize with those things most like their own experience; but it's not true of all readers even if it becomes more true by the year. More on that in a moment. First, I'll take your own example--Jaime Lannister. From book one, he was one of my favorite characters (and my daughter's)--even when he did a certain wrong to a certain young boy. His character was shown, before the book ever opened, to be a thoroughly broken man, fallen from the obvious grace he enjoyed, if only for a short and shallow time. He's set up from the beginning, for those who see past the attempted murder and incest--King Slayer. A name of derision earned by doing the very thing necessary to save Westeros from the Mad King. (Sorry to be vague, but attempting to avoid spoilers.) It is shown a bit more as GRRM continues on with the book--events that occured long before that opening chapter--from that whole bit with Tyrion and his true love, to love/rivalry/ambition that made Cersei all things to him, and none. He gave her a kingdom, and for it, is betrayed over and over again--all before the book ever opens. It's all there for those who take the time to see it. Jaime is a hero and villain from those pre-book incidents, and thus his character is exactly what some will see as set in stone rather than evolving from villain to hero. Jaime is both, from beginning to--I predeict--the end. Nothing the man does or can do will ever be on one side of that line or the other.

But I imagine fewer readers notice this, but instead see him as the villain of villains who is slowly redeemed through ever-increasing acts of valor and rebellion. Not so, but it is so--and that circle goes round and round again.

And this is where I agree with you--readers are dumbing down, and it's not even their faults. Instead of the masterful implications they should be inferring things from, they are spoonfed everything. Nothing is left for their brains to dissect, to roll about their brains and spark notions the writer might never have intended, but becomes a valid point to be mulled over by others. Reading is going the way of theater, IMO--kind of. When I was younger, going to a Broadway show was an event. You didn't go in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, trailing kids who make a fuss and are handed an iphone or a handheld game instead of being taught to mind. Why take them for "the experience" if they're not getting it anyway, and instead ruining the show for others? It's the same with reading--instead of being an event to remember, it's a throwaway we can't remember reading a year later.

Now I'm rambling, so I'll shut up before I turn into the "get off my lawn" woman. Looking forward to meeting you at ConQuest!

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--what I failed to say, after ALL THAT, is that I saw Jaime's character, others will too. I haven't lost all hope that readers cannot come back from the brink!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Pongo & Terri -- You both make very good points here.

I think it's important to keep in mind that empathy is not the same as behaving more kindly toward a villain due to a belief that he or she is "misunderstood".

Empathy is simply the ability to recognize the emotions of another.

How we use empathy and why it is important for social interactions is not well understood.

It is a skill that could, on the one hand, lead to kinder, more tolerant behavior toward the bullied (and most people seem to assume it works this way).

But it could just as easily allow a keener understanding of, and greater ability to set limits on, the bullier.

Just because you empathize with someone doesn't mean you will think better of them or forgive their actions.

All this being said, I agree the jury is still out as to whether novels help us empathize. But I think it's a question worth asking, and I was glad to learn, while writing this post, that people are starting to look into it more rigorously.

batgirl said...

Just to follow up on Karin's point, I've always been leery of the saying "To understand all is to forgive all." To understand why someone commits cruel or callous acts may save you from hating or despising them, but it would not necessarily excuse or diminish the responsibility of that person. In my more cynical moments I've wondered if knowing the pettiness and self-centredness that underlies much cruelty wouldn't make the cruelty less forgiveable?

Anyway, all I have to offer to the discussion is that I've always enjoyed stories told from a non-standard POV - by the onlooker or the villain, or (to go Joseph-Campbell-ish) by the crone or the guide rather than the Hero.

Oh, and to ask the question - what about those readers who insist on empathising with the 'wrong' character? It's the birth of many a fanfic, after all, that a reader finds the hero's best friend or the villain's henchman far more interesting and identifiable than the hero or heroine, and sets out to give them the story arc they deserve.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Great points, batgirl.

I guess we'd have to define what the 'wrong' character is, but from what I understand, one of the points made in Keen's book is that novel readers may simply empathize with characters who reinforce their own perspectives and stereotypes.

On villains -- I've had a very interesting experience with the writing of my second novel. The story contains two 'villains', Mechnes and Rishona. Readers are allowed into Mechnes' head, but not into Rishona's.

I don't know if it's because of this difference in pov, but some of my early readers found Mechnes to be the more sympathetic character, and perceived Rishona to be more purely evil, manipulative, and dangerous.

As an author, I actually feel the opposite. Rishona has a more solid claim to seeing justice done, and there is a certain tragedy in her situation, as she feels driven to extreme measures to do that. Again, NOT to forgive her actions, but at least I can see how they are more-or-less directed toward a perceived higher cause.

Mechnes, on the other hand, is simply a self-serving ass****. Charismatic, but self-serving, violent, and cruel.

I'm still kind of mystified as to why some readers tended to assume Mechnes to be the lesser of these two evils. It may very well be because of how I made use of pov to tell their story.

On the other hand I tend to think as you do: knowing the self-centeredness that underlies cruelty should make it less forgivable, not more.

I'm really curious to see -- when the novel hits the market -- how a broader array of readers responds to these characters.

Terri-Lynne said...

Barbara, I immediately thought of the Hound from Game of Thrones. His storyline creeps in so silently with bursts of insight into the character that strangely, without ever knowing it, we've started rooting for him despite everything. Like Jaime. These are the best characters, IMO.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--are you kidding?? Really? I found Mechnes far more evil and vile. Rishona was driven into cruelty, while Mechnes seemed to quite enjoy it.

Like both you and Barbara say--neither is excused for their evil, they both ended up in the same place, whatever their paths.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri!

Sorry it took me a while to respond.

To be fair, I think two things happened in the mindset of some of those early readers, with the Mechnes/Rishona comparison.

One is that the first scene in which they both appear is dominated by a particularly vicious act on Rishona's part, followed by the appearance of subservience toward her by an apparently mild-mannered Mechnes. As you know, first impressions go along way.

Even as Mechnes' crueler nature becomes clear, I think that readers tend to want to believe he will eventually be redeemed by a certain encounter with a particular person when they invade Moehn. In some ways, he is; and of course we can't talk about the final outcome of that situation here (SPOILERS!), but I think that in wanting to anticipate his redemption, readers tended to focus on the better sides of his nature.

That's my analysis. He's an amazing character in so many ways that one cannot help but like him even as one despises him. I'm really looking forward to hearing what other readers have to say about the infamous Lord Mechnes when HIGH MAGA is released next spring.