Reading to develop empathy and gain insight...

“We do not actually experience the character’s emotions—after all, the character is an abstraction. Rather we feel our own emotions in response to the yearnings, actions, and circumstances the writer describes.”
-"In the Mind of Others" by Keith Oatley (pg. 67)

A relevant slogan by my former math tutors.
I recently remarked that schools should offer psychology courses to encourage kids to better understand and accept each other’s differences. Growing up can be rough. As a kid with ADHD, I often felt misunderstood by teachers and other students, especially in terms of my manic energy. However, like many others, I eventually learned that my so-called “quirks” were actually the qualities that shaped me.

Early English classes served as makeshift psych classes by offering insight into human behaviors. When discussing characters, themes, and symbols, kids began to relate to Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby or Gregor Samsa, freshly turned into “a gigantic insect” (Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (pg.1)). Their situations differed in time and place, but their weaknesses and aspirations were our own.

I often reread Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream because its two worlds (society/nature) expressed the dichotomy I felt within me. There was me: a student, pressured to adhere to social norms. And there was me: a creative mind and a hyperactive spirit. In class, I tapped my foot, forced to sit for too long. In my free time, I ran, played, and reveled in dreaming up stories.

When I started writing this blog post, I didn't realize how relevant it was to the article my mom, Mary Jo Wilson PhD, recently handed to me. In the November 2011 issue of my new favorite periodical, Scientific American, Keith Oatley explores how “The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another’s point of view” (pg. 63).

Perhaps it's not a coincidence then that many writers’ first scribblings are of people they know. While cleaning out my closet during Hurricane Irene, I myself stumbled upon stapled stories of the adventures of “J.A.B” (Remember those days of abbreviating your best friends names into acronyms? This one stood for Julie, Aki, and Bethany). Years later, I wrote short fiction based on predicaments that my friends and I were dealing with. In a college interview, I remarked how rewriting such moments helped me to better understand them and their outcomes.

We're drawn to literature, film, theater, and the visual arts as means to connect to the human experience. In this scientific age, it’s fascinating that studies are being performed to prove this attraction and its merits. Check out “In the Mind of Others,” if only to shed light on yourself and how reading can help nurture your relationships.

What attracts you to art? Does it expand your understanding of yourself and those close to you? What memories stick with you concerning encounters with art?