Empathy, passion make us human


A new study published this month by Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University shows experimentally that reading fiction increases empathy.

Participants were asked to read a short story and then report their mood, how much they felt transported into the story and what feelings they had for the characters. Then, in a staged accident, the experimenter knocked over several pens and recorded whether the participant helped pick them up.

They found that the more a person was transported into the story, the more likely they were to help pick up the dropped pens. In essence, those who engaged more deeply with the fictional characters also showed more empathy for the real-life person in the room with them.

Empathy, like patience or stamina, appears to be a trait that can be improved with practice. Studies have shown the more children read, the better they are at understanding the emotions of others.

Of course, this goes both ways. Researchers at the University of Michigan reported last year that empathy among college students has declined during the past 30 years, with an especially steep drop in the last decade.

When you look at the world today a lot of problems could be solved if people took a moment to be more empathetic and consider issues from both sides.

It’s important to understand where empathy comes from in the first place. Looking at the evolution of the human mind, it has been suggested that the ability to process hypothetical scenarios of what another person might be thinking provided an advantage to our early ancestors. Empathy may have arisen from one of the most fundamental human attributes: the ability to deceive.

Essentially, storytelling is just that: the art of lying. Is Harry Potter real? No, but by projecting ourselves into his story, we are engaging a very real part of our brain.

That sense of escape or social participation often is what makes books so enjoyable.

Unfortunately, books are falling out of style.

Remember Borders, that other book-selling corporation? It doesn’t exist anymore.

Now, the cause of this can be partially chalked up to e-book sales, which have risen dramatically over the past few years and taken a chunk out of the physical book market without necessarily indicating a decline in reading.

Even though some of us would like to, we can’t blame the digital retailers for our eroding empathy.

In fact, some people probably read more with their more convenient e-reader than they ever did before with hard copies. It’s the culture of reading in general that needs to change.

College students have it tough. I know a lot of people, myself included, who say things like, “Are you kidding? I don’t have time to read books for fun.” We’re too busy doing homework and studying and working and going to meetings and playing sports and watching TV and living our lives.

But maybe living someone else’s life for a while could be a good thing.

Michigan State University does an excellent job of promoting healthy lifestyles. We’ve got great workout and exercise facilities all over campus. The cafeterias offer health foods, vegetarian and low-calorie options. We’re encouraged to take breaks and pace ourselves, to utilize counseling services and the other excellent resources on campus. But aside from the One Book, One Community event once a year, we get very little encouragement to read.

Recent cognitive science studies have shown us why it matters and how much of a difference it can make. Empathy is one of the most vital human attributes, and without it, we cannot expect to live in a world where people understand each other and work together to solve problems. Whether you’re in politics or business, empathy is indispensable.

If all it takes is a little bit of reading to improve the way we interact with those around us, count me in.

Craig Pearson is a State News guest columnist and a biochemistry junior.. Reach him at pears53@msu.edu.

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