Saturday, 31 January 2015

Books and empathy. Part One: Jane Austen & Isaac Asimov

Jane Austen and Isaac Asimov are very different writers, separated by time (Asimov was born 103 years after Austen died), gender and subject. Where Austen explores the witty minutiae of gender politics in the upper middle class of the burgeoning British empire ran by and for rich white men, Asimov deals with the wheeling, dealing and politicking on a growing Galactic Empire built on the principles of psychohistory and backed up my pseudo religions, atomic power and weaponry ran by and for, eh well another bunch of rich white men.
Both authors could be dismissed as merely genre writers (romance and sci-fi) but this would an overly simplistic (perhaps a better word would be idiotic) pigeonholing of Asimov and Austen. Yes, one set’s her story in a world where people play the piano forte and gad about in horse drawn carriages and the other creates a world with magical musical instruments like the Visi-Sonor and zip about the galaxy in fabulous space ships. However, what makes the stories of both stand out is that they deal primarily with people; their emotions, hopes, mistakes, misconceptions, failures and triumphs.  

As we read these stories, we not only step into the physical world of the tales, but also into the emotional world of the people who inhabit those worlds, like those two clever and determined women Elizabeth Bennet and Bayta Darrell. We find ourselves trying to guess what they should do next, reflect on their past actions, wonder about the people they are engaging with and try and work out how they could overcome the seemingly insurmountable problems confronting them. In short we empathise with the characters in the stories.

There has been a lot of research pointing out that all this cognitive processing involved in reading fiction boosts our ability to understand and engage the world around us, whether we are managing a household (like me), exploring astrophysics or mathematics or creating poetry or art. But I recently came across an online article ‘Science shows something surprising about people who love reading fiction’ showing other, perhaps more important benefits, of reading fiction. 

This article summarises recent research suggesting that readers’ empathy for fictional characters is reflected by their empathy for people around in their daily live. Reading fiction, it would seem, hightens our ability to understand the emotion of people around us. This is of course great news for writers: I can now tell people reading my books is good for you, even though some of my tales can be a little scary. On the negative side, the very benefits that come from reading books, may explain why some regimes and individuals have sought to destroy books.

* * *
For more on how to look good, feel good and be in charge of your life as a student at NUI Galway check out Student's Services Health Promotion  Students at NUI Galway can also sign up for the free online health and wellness magazine Student Health 101

Keep up to date by following this blog on twitter and Facebook

No comments:

Post a Comment