Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Picture by J E Theriot via Flickr creative commons

Picture by J E Theriot via Flickr creative commons

The Writing Excuses podcast recently had an excellent episode with Cory Doctorow about why we care about imaginary characters. Doctorow sets out a fascinating theory grounded in psychology and evolution, and it’s well worth a listen.

It’s easy to be struck by wonder at how we can bring people to life in our minds, whether it’s imagining fictional characters or retaining the memories of lost loved ones. And as with so many things, explaining it doesn’t take away the wonder for me. Rather, it creates a breathtaking moment of looking at the universe and going ‘damn, that’s clever, and it’s still wonderful too’.

I’ve been thinking for a while I should read some of Doctorow’s work, beyond the occasional blog post. This has shifted him up my to-read list, so if anyone has recommendations for particular books of his then please let me know. And if you have any thoughts on Doctorow’s theory, or on other theories of why fictional characters mean so much to us, then please share them in the comments – I’m always keen for more of this sort of thing.

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Research has shown that reading novels that make you think, that stretch your mind and challenge you to get inside the heads of others, increases your empathy. It may not take much empathy on your part to work out that I’m not surprised.

Literature, along with the other arts, is often treated as a nice thing to have, a way to escape from our ordinary lives. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a way to transform the way we think, to get into the mental space of other people, to help us relate to our fellow human beings.

The study, by the New School for Social Research in New York, also found that reading books off the Amazon bestseller list didn’t have the same benefit. Having read two whole Dan Brown novels, I’m not surprised, though I wonder how much that’s about the texts themselves rather than how we approach them. And the idea of dividing literature into dumb bestsellers and smart literary fiction is a whole other problem I won’t get into today.

I’m off to read a book – a stinking headache is making me hate the world this morning, and I could do with the empathy. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any thoughts on this, or any books that have really helped you to understand other people, leave a note below.