Understanding Empathy Part 6

Understanding Empathy Part 6

Posted 2014-12-07 by lynjofollow

If we think about how empathy works we can recognize the need for us to be exposed to the experiences of others, but it takes more than that. We need to be open to noticing, to hearing, to tuning into those experiences, make sense of them in light of our own understandings and then to express that in some way. Is this extraordinary capacity inbuilt to us already or can it be developed?

According to a 2013 study from Emory University people who read fiction have heightened brain activity in areas of the brain associated with language, as you might expect, but also visualization, a necessary tool in being able to visualize the experience of another. A further study explored sensitivity to other people’s stories, known as being “emotionally transported”. This study found that empathy was only apparent in the groups of people who read fiction and were emotionally transported. People who read the fiction alone but did not experience being emotionally transported actually demonstrated a decrease in empathy.

So reading fiction on its own is not the point, but true engagement with the characters, what they experience and how they are feeling is crucial as part of this experience of being emotionally transported, and in turn increasing one’s empathy.

Further research has even shown the types of fiction that promotes this – literary fiction rather than pop fiction. It is suggested that this is because the characters in literary fiction are complex, ambiguous and quite difficult to understand. Accordingly, it takes considerable effort to flesh out the character. Pop fiction, in contrast, tends to use stereotyped and more predictable characters.

This fleshing out of the character helps us to use the skills we typically use in real life: listening carefully, tuning into the subtleties of what people say and do, looking for cues and drawing on our own experiences in attempts to understand what it might be like to be the other person. In this way fiction reading becomes a social experience drawing upon and enhancing our social skills. We can then have better developed empathy and relationship skills to use in our real life relationships.


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