Have you ever hated a book that kept you awake all night? Has a book you didn’t enjoy ever brought you to tears? An author’s job is to make you cry, make you laugh, and make you late for work.
An article published last year in Science presented evidence that literary fiction makes readers more empathic than popular fiction; that is, it claims LitFic is better for you than mystery, romance, thrillers, or science fiction. The paper, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” reported results from psychology researchers Emanuele Castano and David Kidd of New York’s New School.
The paper caused such a clamor among the Litquake committee, the people who produce San Francisco’s week-long literary festival -- a group with passion for all types and genres of written, spoken, sung, and even bad literature (c.f., Litquake’s first anthology, Drivel) — that I decided to make it the topic of this year’s science and literature panel. I’ve assembled a research psychologist, the program director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, authors of LitFic, romance, and mystery. I’ll moderate and represent science fiction. And you? You’ll ask questions.
My aim here isn’t merely to convince you to mark your calendar; it’s to prepare you to participate in Litquake's Does Literature Make You an Empath? event next Tuesday at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco.
Let’s go back to the title of the article, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” The “theory of mind” is the basis for how we experience empathy. Our psychologist, Caren Walker, points out that it really is a theory. She says, “Knowledge captured in a theory of mind is like any intuitive theory: a set of coherent, abstract causal representations that allow us to make predictions about the world.” I think it should be called “your theory of other minds” because it represents your unique concept of how other people think and experience feelings, sensations, urges, and appetites.
The Oxford English Dictionary has an uncharacteristically short but wonderfully arcane definition of empathy: “The power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” When you read a novel, you create your own version of the author’s fictitious reality. As you visualize a setting, your visual processing centers light up in a way similar to how they would if you were actually there. In other words, novels preceded Oculus Rift as virtual reality equipment by about 500 years. When a novelist does a good job portraying a character in a rose garden, you’ll catch a hint of the scent; an act of fictitious injustice makes you feel outrage; a good sex scene perks you right up, as it were.
So how does reading fiction improve our ability to empathize? The Greater Good Science Center’s Jason Marsh says, “Fiction writers deliberately encourage us to see the world through someone else’s point of view, or experience characters’ emotions in a visceral way -- and that’s the essence of empathy.”
Bestselling romance author Julie Anne Long says, “I do my best to inhabit every character -- see through their eyes, feel everything that they’re feeling, translate that into just the right words. And if I do it right, readers are already living my story and invested in the outcome before they’ve reached chapter two.”
But does LitFic work better than romance? Critically acclaimed novelist Elizabeth Rosner, author of just-released Electric City, says, “Literary fiction is much more often character-driven than plot-driven. Writers and readers of literary fiction are more likely to be asking why a character is behaving or thinking or feeling a certain way. In romance or thriller or sci-fi books, there is more emphasis on what and how.”
Readers of Cara Black’s Aimée LeDuc Parisian mystery series, make their empathy clear: “Readers ask: when will she find the right guy? Won’t she settle down and find happiness with someone? Once at a reading, a woman got down on her knees and begged me to let Aimée hook up with Mr. Right. She spoke as if Aimée was her girlfriend who needed an ‘intervention’. I think they also see themselves in Aimee -- it’s a universal thing.”
Licensed therapist and author of Don’t Try to Find Me, Holly Brown says, “A lot of the suspense in my novels derives from the fear, love, and anger that the characters don’t want to admit that they feel. So the reader knows things about the characters that they don’t yet know about themselves, and the reader is saying, ‘No, don’t open that door! Don’t make that choice!’”
In The Sensory Deception, I use the theory of mind to generate empathy by putting my readers in the first person perspective of endangered animals. Not coincidentally, my characters develop immersive virtual reality technology and use the same trick to alter people’s politics and recruit activists (trouble ensues).
Consider the statement: “I know how you feel.” While separate, our models of the world have to be similar enough for us to agree on pretty much all factual information. Red is red, after all. Maybe what you and I perceive differs, still we agree it’s red.
But feelings? Theory of mind is a form of internal mimicry that begets empathy and empathy is all-powerful in culture, art, and, ultimately, morality. The sensory excitations we experience from stories, music, paintings, even architecture and engineering, can resonate in our minds in such a way that we respond with visceral intimacy.
Here’s your homework assignment, due on October 14, 2014: When you read, not just fiction, but news, essays, and biography, even Facebook and Twitter posts, pay attention to your emotions. When something makes you angry, surprised, or frightened, try to figure out where those emotions came from. Do you remember the experiences that, in the words of the OED, empowered you to project your personality into that which you are contemplating? Can you see how your empathy varies with different types of media? Can you isolate what the author did to you — because it was personal!
Litquake's Does Literature Make You an Empath? panel is Tuesday, Oct. 14, 6:30pm at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco. For more information, visit litquake.org.
Ransom Stephens, Ph.D., is a science writer, physicist, the author of two novels, The Sensory Deception and The God Patent, and an irreverent but accurate take on neuroscience, The Left Brain Speaks but the Right Brain Laughs, coming from Viva Editions in Autumn 2015.