I read an article titled “How Reading A Book Can Help Us Love Our Fellow Humans” by Sarah Kovak the other day and marveled at its claim: that reading can increase empathy. Just one story, one book can be powerful enough to cause changes in brain function and structure? This could seem obvious to some, since some books can be “life-changing”, but on a scientific level, I think this is a bold claim.
As a user experience (UX) designer, I hear over and over again that the most important thing to value, learn and practice is empathy. While UX does give me unique opportunities to practice empathy (outside of the daily opportunities life gives us), I never thought of reading as a direct way to do this too — but it is!
The Link Between Reading & Empathy
The science behind why reading may help us grow our empathy is in two different studies, which are linked in Kovak’s article. Essentially, the parts of the brain associated with story comprehension, experiencing sensations and forming one’s perspective are more active after reading. More activity in those regions of the brain means more associations and connections between what we think and what we experience.
I love this. What is empathy but identifying with someone else, and connecting understanding of someone else and adopting those experiences/perspectives, if even temporarily?
Kovak writes, “Stories shapes our lives and in some cases help define a person.” I’m coming to a new understanding of what this actually means. Words are powerful; they can make all the difference in someone’s life at any point, for good or for bad. Some words are remembered forever and are a person’s beliefs and identity put into a share-able, communicative medium.
But to think about how a story — words on a page, which, if it’s fiction, are not even true — can bring real change in a person’s heart and mind is bracing and encouraging and unsettling. What we write can create new realities, new norms, new worlds — figuratively, literally, intentionally and/or accidentally.
Imagine if we started, as infants, hearing stories about very different human beings… Positive stories. Sad stories. Stories woven from real-life psychology. Imagine how much kinder we could be if we kept pursuing these kinds of stories… Just as our brains develop throughout childhood and adolescence, our empathy muscle memory would develop, too.
Diverse Reading Elicits Empathy
This got me thinking about what books shaped my childhood and exposed me to other cultures, and only a few come to mind:
- A Single Shard was one, set in the backdrop of Korea and the art of celadon pottery making in the old days.
- A Girl Named Disaster and The Ear, The Eye and The Arm were two others – both set in Zimbabwe, written by Nancy Farmer.
- Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, set at the Pakistan/India border.
But outside of these, I don’t recall other books that made an impression on me based on the culture and peoples in the story.
While I’m sure (or rather, sincerely hope!) the volume of works that children are exposed to, hear about and read these days is more and more diverse, I’m now realizing that the importance of reading a range of works set in different cultures is much bigger, and more edifying, than we may know. Also, if reading lights up the parts of our brain we use to practice empathy, I think this is the part where I say hey, let’s decrease our internet surfing and read a book instead.
Kovak also writes, “stories, especially when experienced through the written word, have the ability to move us so deeply that they can actually rewire our brains.” Taken in this context, then writing can be seen as a noble cause. Moving towards peace with our colleagues, with our families, and even amongst nations may be as close as the nearest library or bookstore. Your experiences, stories and words are important and, like a butterfly’s wingbeat in China causing rain in New York, can stir up more change than we know.