Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can be as simple as putting your nose in a good book.
Or even a bad book, evidently; Twilight was used as part of a recent study investigating the link between reading fiction and empathy.
Philosophical arguments have long argued that fiction helps train us to recognize the feelings of others. In the past decade, the scientific community has also developed a significant interest in that relationship.
The importance of investigating how empathy works has been heightened by studies concluding empathy is declining and narcissism is rising, particularly among younger generations.
Those trends are being linked to reports that people are reading less literature than ever.
The qualities of fiction responsible for creating empathy are the same qualities that distinguish fiction from other forms of media and entertainment: a focus on psychological processes, motivations and the reasons people do things. A movie shows us what someone else does, but a novel puts us in someone else’s place and explains how and why decisions are being made.
These insights are more literal than you might expect. Observing others’ emotional responses can trigger the neural functions of our brain responsible for creating the same feelings.
Less exposure to literature is not the only cultural and societal change being credited with contributing to our diminishing empathy.
Social media, some argue, is part of the problem. Online relationships are easier to ignore. And the fast-paced way we use the Internet doesn’t allow the time for processing and reflecting on information that is important for relating to others.
Does this mean we should log off and read up? Not necessarily.
It’s almost a reflex these days to blame problems on social media and the Internet. But on a second look, online interactions might provide more avenues for empathy than roadblocks.
Stereotypical posts about food and updates of relationship statuses obviously skew toward narcissism rather than empathy. But the wealth of personal information also provides opportunities for relating, understanding and connecting.
Is empathy worth taking the time to study and learn about?
The developing field of experts on social media think so, pointing to understanding others as a crucial aspect of using the medium effectively.
Writers certainly pay attention to the connection, too. Many novelists consider creating relatable characters a crucial part of writing a successful work. There are more quotes from writers on the subject than could fill this newspaper.
Even if you’re not writing a novel, Facebook status or a blog post, empathy is still valuable. Its applications extend beyond the realm of emotions and feelings. Empathy has strong ties to altruism, and it also helps us anticipate what decisions others will make.
What’s most important about these studies, conclusions and theories on empathy is that we recognize the value of fiction’s illuminating qualities and adapt it to new mediums.
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