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|
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.
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