Reading Literature Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

I read in the NY Times’ health blog yesterday about an interesting study from psychology researchers at New York’s New School For Social Research demonstrating that reading literature can improve your empathy skills.  This was conducted as a scientific study, by giving each participant a few pages of a literary work to read, and then testing how they fared on “mood recognition” — identifying moods in pictures of people’s eyes. The researchers, a psychology professor and a graduate student from The New School, found that after reading literature for a few minutes, people performed better on the test.  The findings were published in the journal Science. 

What was interesting was seeing which books were classified as “literature” by the study. The literary selections included Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, and Alice Munro, among others. The “non-literary” selections included Danielle Steele and Dashiell Hammett.

That science can be used to measure the effects of literary writing, even for a few minutes, is, to say the least, fascinating.

An idea for another study: measure the effects of reading literature via a hard copy of a book versus reading on Kindle. I wonder if the result will be the same.


The Death of Reading?

I am one of those people who daily mourns what I  call “the death of reading”. I know that this is a dramatic statement, perhaps even melodramatic. But as someone who has slowly drifted towards “web surfing,” I feel qualified to testify to the death of reading as we once knew it. Indeed, I am nothing more than a mute witness to the end of a once revered activity.  Unresistingly, I have allowed myself to be pulled by the tide, and now I must swim with the tide.

But let me rail against this fate. Let me rail against the end of long, silent summer afternoons interrupted by nothing other than the slow turning of pages as one moved steadily through an old classic; let me rail against the end of overstuffed armchairs, the soft light of a reading lamp, a steaming cup of Earl Grey, and a Somerset Maugham novel to get through; let me remember with nostalgia a time when sitting on green college lawns and reading W.B. Yeats was an experience of beauty and truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet. I appreciate it greatly.  It’s a great way to pass the time and a great source of information. I can read any poem I want any time I want thanks to the Internet. I can know when Paul Theroux’s new book is out and can read an excerpt from it without stirring out of my apartment. I can listen to authors speak about their works through podcasts that I download from the Internet. If anything, the Internet has brought distant worlds closer to me and has made them more accessible.

And there’s the rub. In bringing some things closer, it has pushed other things farther away. In making knowledge more accessible, it has also made it easier to get away with thinking, feeling, and doing less: When I know that I can command a poem by W.B. Yeats to appear on my screen at the click of a button, I have saved myself the trouble of experiencing that ache of longing, the ache to find a poem in a book, that specific poem in that specific book; I have spared myself the flustered, clumsy flipping of pages back and forth until – lo! — there it is again, with my undergraduate notations in the margins; there it is, after so long, like an old friend I haven’t seen in years but whom I have never forgotten.

To hold a book in one’s hands is to experience an author in a special way. It is to experience the labour that brought forth those pages. It is to hold a piece of another person’s life in your hands. It is to be faced with the incontrovertible truth that a person has, successfully or unsuccessfully, dedicated some years of his or her life to creating a body of work that could not have come into being without some suffering. It is to hold an ‘artifice of eternity’.

There is an eternity in which literature dwells, and there is this instantaneous instant of cyberspace. Have we traded one in for the other?

Haruki Murakami/What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don’t think that reading two Japanese writers (neither of whom I had read earlier) in close succession can be called “bingeing” on Japanese writers, but that’s what I thought I was doing when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go as well as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running within the span of a couple of months. They are both immensely talented writers, but in different ways. Ishiguro is deeply interior, even dark at times, extremely focussed on the streams of consciousness of his characters; Murakami, based on the one work I have read, has a more playful, teasing, light-hearted and comic style.

What does he think about when he runs, or when he thinks about running? In his typical, teasing style, he says: Nothing. Nothing at all.

“I’m often asked what I think about when I run. Usually, the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days . . . And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void” (16-17).

So what you get is about 180 pages  about this void in a spartan style that is a cross between Raymond Chandler — who inspired the title of this work — and Ernest Hemingway; Zen-like ruminations on the nothingness of everyday life through the lens of a writer and runner. It’s a book that’s as hard to describe as it is to put down.

It then struck me, the other day, that what this book is about is learning to cultivate a certain “stick-with-it-ness,” a dogged digging in of the heels in the face of faint-heartedness. The doggedness with which Murakami runs and his perseverance with running are the “glue” that keep him grounded and take him forward, past adversity and obstacles. It makes me believe that so much success in life derives from this simple lesson:  DO NOT GIVE UP.

Justice and Empathy: Revisiting Antigone

Sotomayor ConfirmationSonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark, in a speech made in 2001– “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”–undoubtedly set the tone for her confirmation hearings this month. But her retraction of the same remark in the face of sustained grilling from the Republican camp has merely preserved the status quo on the subject of justice and empathy.

Admittedly,  it was another sound bite that got the controversy going in the first place. Barack Obama in 2005, at the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, was quoted as having said that in a certain percentage of judicial decisions, “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.” His choice of Sonia Sotomayor as Souter’s replacement on the Supreme Court has been viewed by many as a reflection of that belief; and his candidate, by extension, as a vehicle of that idea.

Sotomayor effectively rebutted the suggestion that she would allow subjectivity to color her judgments and argued beyond a reasonable doubt that her rulings would be governed by the law rather than her heart, and that they always have been. There is little doubt that she will be confirmed in August. And justifiably so. She is cuts an impressive figure and has a sound track record. But the issues surrounding her hearings leave an important question unanswered: is there no place for empathy and “heart” in matters of law?

This is a question that is at least 2000 years old. It is the legal and ethical question that forms the basis of Sophocles’ Antigone, and it is one that Sophocles does not answer unequivocally. In Antigone, the eponymous heroine’s brother, Polyneices, has been denied burial rites by their uncle and King of Thebes, Creon, who has declared Polyneices a traitor and enemy of the state. Creon has declared an edict forbidding anyone from burying his nephew’s body on pain of death. Antigone defies the edict and buries her brother.  For it wasn’t Zeus who declared the edict; and “Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods/ beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men.” Creon’s adamant stance is that she has defied the law of the state and must be punished, even if she is his flesh and blood: “Sister’s child or closer in blood/Than all my family clustered at my altar/worshiping Guardian Zeus/She’ll never escape . . . the most barbaric death.”

Sophocles offers up the suggestion that Creon’s laws are flawed because they do not permit the emotions any place in deliberations over justice. From the law’s perspective, that Polyneices was a traitor to Thebes was enough justification to deny himimages burial rights; but from Antigone’s perspective, the perspective of the heart, of emotion, of empathy, the law was ironically doing a great injustice to a beloved family member and so had to be flouted in the interests of a higher form of justice: “. . . if I had allowed,” she says, “my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse—/That would have been an agony!”

In other words, law, to Sophocles, is not as cut and dried as  the honorable American senators would have it. From the perspective of Greek tragedy, there can be situations in which the law falls short and when the heart must take over. This is one of literature’s dangerous lessons, and no doubt the very reason why Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal republic. But the issue appears to be far from resolved, even with the possibility of a wise Latina one day sitting in the Supreme Court.