The Art of Empathy

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting post about a recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Toronto on the effects of reading fiction. (Full disclosure here: I haven’t read the entire study, which was published in the October issue of The Journal of Research in Personality. I just can’t bring myself to fork over the money for a subscription at the moment. So, the following observations are based solely on the abstract, which you can read here.) The thrust of the study appears to be this: researchers found that avid fiction readers are more socially adept and empathetic than readers of nonfiction.

On its face, this seems counterintuitive. How does reading about imaginary people better prepare you for the real world than reading about actual corporeal beings? I don’t have the answer to this question, and, as far as I can tell, neither do the researchers. But I do have a theory.

The thing that separates fiction from nonfiction is fiction’s ability to transport the reader into the mind of another. Reading a psychologically astute work of fiction is the closest we ever get to experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. No other art form offers us the level of access that fiction offers. You could argue that even real life doesn’t offer the kind of intimacy found in a good novel.

Think about your greatest love affair. The psychic fusion that accompanies new love can be engulfing. It often gives people the feeling of being “at one” with their beloved. But even during this peak emotional experience, we are very much alone in our own minds. Your loved one knows as much about your interior life as you are willing to offer up and vice versa. And as rule, our disclosures represent only a small portion of our experiences. Now contrast this with your knowledge of Jane Eyre’s interior life. If pressed, I imagine that those of you who’ve read the book could talk at length about Jane’s heartbreaks, her dreams, and her yearnings. Could you do the same for your partner? My guess is that you couldn’t, certainly not with the same level of confidence.

My point here is this: reading fiction is an inherently empathetic act. So, it makes perfect sense that regular readers of fiction would have a highly developed sense of empathy. Practice, as the old saying goes, makes perfect. It’s only logical that the ability to transcend your own ego and adopt the perspective of another, honed by reading fiction, translates into better people skills in the real world.

It occurred to me as I was reading the abstract that it would be interesting to find out how mirror neurons behave when someone is reading fiction. For the sake of brevity, I’ll spare you a long definition of mirror neurons here. (For more info, see “Psychic Cells.”) Put simply, mirror neurons are empathy neurons. When you perform an action, like throwing a baseball, for the first time, this behavior gets encoded in a clutch of brain cells. But scientists have recently discovered that these brain cells also fire when you see someone else perform the same action. These are mirror neurons. And they are sophisticated. In addition to responding to physical actions, they light up when you see someone experiencing an emotion that you’ve experienced. If someone is mourning the death of a pet, for instance, and you’ve dealt with a similar experience, your own “pet mourning” mirror neurons will light up in sympathy. My hunch is that mirror neurons also light up when you read about someone mourning a pet. This would explain why readers can summon up the feelings ascribed to fictional characters so easily. Mirror neurons make their emotions real to us.

I don’t mean to imply that nonfiction is fiction’s poor relation. Nonfiction has a different, but no less important, mandate. It is a powerful way of relaying information and bringing real life into clear focus. The importance of this can’t be overstated. But nonfiction writers aren’t afforded unlimited access to their subject’s interior lives. They can give you glimpses inside the minds of their characters, but they can’t allow you to step inside their heads for prolonged periods of time. And this, I think, explains why reading nonfiction doesn’t allow readers to exercise empathy to the same degree as fiction.

Of course, the masters of nonfiction (Joan Didion, Gay Talese, even John Krakauer) are capable of blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. They spend months – sometimes even years – immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects: gaining their trust, and analyzing their characters. The result is nonfiction that reads like fiction. Facts are presented in graphic detail, and thoughts and feelings are relived for the benefit of the reader. This requires painstaking attention to detail–a level of attention most nonfiction writers are unwilling or unable to invest.

*Virtual End Note*

I had the opportunity to talk to Gay Talese recently after he lectured at NYU. I asked him how he had been able to put himself so completely in the shoes of the boxer Floyd Patterson, a man he wrote about over the course of more than two decades. ‘How did you know what Patterson was thinking in a given moment,’ I asked? ‘I asked him,’ said Talese simply. Not once, but over and over again, several times a day, for years on end. Kinda makes writing fiction sound easy, doesn’t it?


  1. #1 sally
    December 11, 2006

    thanks for the blog, i love it (here by way of pharyngula).

  2. #2 Lizzie
    December 11, 2006

    I think movies serve a similar role of leading us into more empathy, by exposing us to other people’s lives, feelings and motivations.

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