Apparently we can be taught to be more empathetic. Really. Good news, don't you think, in this mean old world? This world where we seem to be getting a little bit meaner each year, unable or unwilling to put ourselves in another person's shoes, unable to understand, care about, or even identify how others must be feeling. This world of scrolling and trolling. Where we consume information, opinion, and hyperbolic headlines with the flick of a finger. Where the distance provided by our screens enables us to respond to what we read and see... instantly, sometimes anonymously, impulsively, and often free of consequence. Yep. This world definitely needs more empathy.
And you know how we can learn to be more empathetic? And teach others to have more compassion for others? By reading more fiction. I swear. This is not just something that we dedicated readers have cooked up to justify our many hours of splendid isolation, slipper-clad feet up, balancing a good book in one hand, and a nice cup of tea in the other. It's true. Science says so.
Teaching empathy is not a new idea. I first read about it years ago, in a short essay we used on a grade twelve English exam. Most high school English exams include a short text which the student is unfamiliar with, and to which they must respond. We tried to choose timely passages, and ones which we could link to the themes of the works we had studied in class. And this short essay on this particular exam has always stuck in my head. It was about how literary fiction was being used to teach medical students how to better understand their patients. Teaching them empathy, in other words. I have no idea where the original essay came from, but I started looking around on the internet this week .. seeing if I could find it. Or one which espouses the same ideas. Wow. Could I?
After separating the wheat from the chaff, I found some pretty interesting articles. Like Sandra Boodman's How to Teach Doctors Empathy in The Atlantic, where she says that "being a good doctor requires an understanding of people not just science," and doctors who learn to better understand people become better doctors. Mohammadreza Hojat, research professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, explains in the article that "empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait." So we can learn to be more empathetic. He goes on to say that the time used to teach young doctors to be more empathetic is time well spent. And many medical schools are doing just that... teaching empathy. Some more explicitly, through courses which teach better listening skills, and how to decode the facial expressions and body language of their patients. Others through what is called "narrative medicine" which involves the reading and discussion of literary fiction, novels, stories, and poetry.
In the New York Times article Stories in the Service of Making a Better Doctor, Pauline W. Chen M.D. says that "exposure to literature and writing during residency training can influence how young doctors approach their clinical work." That even for young residents whose days are already very busy, it's important to "[spend] a half hour a day to remember that we are all human, not just doctors, or pharmacists, or nurses, or patients." In fact several doctors interviewed for this article speak of how reading and discussing literature has transformed how they do their job. That's pretty cool, I'd say.
And finally, the article Wrapped up in a Book: The Role of Emotional Engagement in Reading explains the science behind all this, how emotional engagement with literature can make us more empathetic, and includes links to the studies which make a connection between reading and empathy. And while most of the articles I read say that the long term effect of increased physician empathy on the health care system is still unknown, they also say that in the short term greater physician empathy certainly leads to greater patient satisfaction, fewer malpractice suits, and even possibly fewer cases of physician burn-out. So it would seem that the reality here is that everyone benefits... from reading fiction.
Now all this is not to say that doctors alone should learn to be more empathetic. Au contraire, my friends. These articles about doctors and empathy are just by way of an example. Because if busy medical residents who have enormous demands on their time, who have to learn all kinds of scientific knowledge, and master all kinds of technology, can take a half hour a day to remind themselves "that we are all human," what's to stop the rest of us from doing the same? Nothing, I'd say. Nothing at all.
And for those naysayers who think that reading fiction is a waste of time, I have an anecdote for you. Ha. Don't I always? One year, when I was still teaching, I was able to sign-up my whole department for a fabulous workshop given by Jeff Wilhelm, an English teacher like us, and co-author of the book Reading Don't Fix No Chevys. Wilhelm gave us all kinds of awesome ideas for engaging kids in the discussion of literature. Fun stuff, you know. And he told the story of a boy in his class, a boy who loved cars, and had every intention of becoming a mechanic, and spending his life working on cars. And the boy said to him: "But Sir, what is reading Romeo and Juliet going to teach me? It sure isn't going to help me learn how to fix cars." And Wilhelm replied, "What? Nothing to teach you? You don't plan to fall in love? No family squabbles at your house? You've never had to make a moral decision that you've come to regret? Huh?" Or something like that. But you get the point, I'm sure. Which is that reading fiction, reading stories, has all kinds of benefits. Way beyond entertainment. Beyond relaxation. Beyond that lovely sighing feeling when you sit down and open up your book and find out what so and so is up to now.
Reading helps us to be better people, I think. Teaches us to "[escape] our own egocentric bubbles and [understand] the lives of others." Or so Ed Yong says in his article in The Atlantic. And that my friends is something we could all learn to do better. By getting off our screens and reading a book. Or reading a book on our screen.... but without checking Twitter or Instagram every five seconds.
That's one of my bookshelves in the shot above. With a few books by some of my favourite authors. Books I love, and which I think have helped me to better understand the world in which we live. Books which I hope have made me better at "climbing into other people's skin" as Harper Lee so famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now there is a book which teaches kids to have empathy!
And isn't that what all great books teach us? That we should learn other people's stories, climb into their skin and walk around for a while, before we judge? This lesson is valuable for us all, not just for English students, or budding doctors. But for teachers and retired teachers, taxi drivers and hair dressers, lawyers and professional athletes. And even, dare I say, politicians. Maybe especially politicians.
I know. I'm preaching to the choir. I know.
Still, it felt good to get that off my chest. I read a bunch of other fascinating stuff, but maybe we'll get to that another time. Right now, I'm going to retire to my sunroom, sigh, open my book, and find out what so and so is up to.
And it's your turn, anyway... my non-trolling, book-loving, empathetic friends. Any stories about books you'd like to share? Any particular books that you'd like to tell us about, which might help the world become a more empathetic place?
P.S. Thanks to my friend Susan Webb for the birthday card with the image at the top of the post. It's a painting called "The Explorer" by Rebecca Campbell.