Let’s Read and Feel Stuff

by Jason Tougaw

This week, Psychology Today published a short piece asserting that reading fiction involves empathy, by cognitve psychologist Keith Oatley:

Engaging with fiction is an empathetic act. It involves entering a simulated social world, and inserting characters’ goals and plans into the processor that we usually use to make and carry out our plans in the world. It has two parts. In the first, we set aside our own plans and concerns for a while as we take up our book; we then take on the plans and concerns of a fictional character, and empathetically imagine what that character might feel. We are not just book-reading, we are mind-reading. In the second part, we experience emotions–our own emotions–in the circumstances of a character’s concerns, plans and actions.

To summarize: Reading makes us feel stuff–not just stuff, but stuff we wouldn’t have felt otherwise. The feelings are generated through our responses to emotions of characters built out of the mysterious black marks on the pages of our books, Kindles, and iPads. Fair enough. I’m down with that. But.

Oatley’s piece is based on fMRI research conducted by Frederiqe De Vignemont and Tania Singer (of “mirror neuron” fame)–and it’s accompanied by a captionless image of an fMRI scan. I can only guess since PT offers no explanation of the image, but I imagine it’s intended to show that the colored areas in the brain scan represent emotional activity triggered by reading fiction. The editorial choice is more than a little creepy: that simply publishing an image, which could represent anything or nothing, is sufficient evidence to convince audiences that “empathy is critical in fiction, in history, and in life.”  Give readers a little credit–and a little information.

Despite this bit of creepiness, it’s great to see questions about what literature does to us get some play in the popular press, but it would be great to see writers and literary critics who’ve been exploring questions about empathy and narrative get some play too–especially Suzanne Keen and Lisa Zunshine.

I’m convinced that there’s a fundamental relationship between real-world empathy and the feelings we share with characters in fiction (and autobiography). I agree that our own emotional states are transformed when we feel for and with these characters. But, I have some questions:

1. What do we gain from the experience of letting our own emotions be altered through reading about the feelings of characters who don’t exist or people we don’t know?

2. How long does the change last? Do the emotions elicited by black marks on pages change us in enduring ways?

3. Does reading fiction help us exercise empathy so that we’ll get better at it in real life? Or might it be a substitute for real-life empathy, as Keen suggests it sometimes is?

4. What about watching TV or reading about people’s feelings on Facebook? Does the experience need to be “literary” in the traditional sense in order to count?

5. How might the other cognitive dimensions of translating black marks on a page into imagined characters with imagined lives and feelings factor into the equation? The building of fictional worlds is astounding if you let yourself think about it even for a few seconds. It’s also astoundingly complicated. Can fMRI research ever account for such complexity?

6. Empathy is defined here as “emotion . . .  that is in some way similar to that of another person.” Can we get more precise? Might reading some fiction help us with that–maybe some Henry James or George Eliot or Kazuo Ishiguro?

So, here’s my fantasy: A research team composed of cognitive psychologists like Singer and Vignemont as well as literary scholars like Keen and Zunshine and some novelists and memoirs. I’ll nominate a few: Siri Hustvedt, Alix Kates Shulman, David B., Marjane Satrapi, and Ian McEwan. Let’s ask Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin to get involved. We might want to invite some philosophers too. After all, Richard Rorty was making arguments about fiction and empathy decades ago. Oh, and if they’ll have me, I’ll be happy to join the team.

If you’re interested in finding the original article the PT piece is based on, here’s the info:

De Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathetic brain: How, when, and why. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 435-441.

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