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.
"The Explorer" Rebecca Campbell

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.
favourite authors in my bookcase
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.


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45 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy in the Age of Trolling and Scrolling”

  1. What a great post. Very interested to read scientific evidence of what I instinctively believe to be true about the benefits of reading fiction. So apart from the sheer pleasure of being transported to another time or place and getting lost in another world, we are gaining new understanding and that all important empathy, potentially making the world a better place. What's not to love? Iris

    1. Thanks, Iris. I'm with you in instinctively feeling that reading has made me a better person… And it's nice to know science has proven us right!

  2. Ouch, just lost yet another comment – I wish I could work out what it is that I touch that does this! So frustrating. Anyway, great post and I will make another attempt later … and on a different device!

    1. Sorry about that Mary. My I-pad does not like to interact with Blogger when the Internet is even mildly iffy. I feel your pain:)

  3. Taken a while to respond today as I needed to digest your post , read your references & walk the dogs .A great post & of course I agree . I remember being told that real readers don't read fiction – it being a frivolous waste of time . It is interesting to see how differently people I know have developed through the years & the effect reading seems to have had on them . I like to think you gain a little wisdom . Of course it isn't all down to reading , there's nature & nurture too , but siblings divided into readers/ non readers show different characteristics it seems . Then I wonder whether we read because we are natural empathisers ? There is a little downside I think . Those who don't empathise seem more desensitised to the hardships of others in the world . Sometimes I think it would be easier to be more like that .
    This post shows why your blog is so special & why you are developing such an intelligent & loyal following . Fashion & philosophy mix very well . Newspapers & magazines often disappoint these days but fortunately there are a few bloggers holding our attention & writing beautifully .
    PS I recognize some friends on your bookcase – Anne Tyler , Penelope Lively plus Richard B Wright ( thanks to you ).
    Wendy in York

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I can't even imagine what my head would be filled with if it wasn't stuffed with snippets of stories, quotes, and the lives of characters I've read over the years. But I agree though that it sometimes seems easier not to empathize. Or be able to see several sides to one situation. Sometimes that ability undermined my intention to discipline my classes… without reminiscing about my own teenage years… and what we "got up to."
      As to the bookshelf .. I rearranged it a bit to be able to get Penelope Lively, AS Byatt, and Pat Barker in the shot. Three authors who have really inspired me, but whose books actually live on another shelf.

  4. Don't you think it's perhaps that people who are more empathetic, tend to love to read, especially fiction? So many people I know who lack sensitivity and empathy, are not "readers". Sometimes these studies can be skewed a bit, by not knowing which comes first? That being said, I do look for books (and there are many now) for my grandkids that do teach empathy. Thanks for such an excellent and well thought out post. These are my favorites and I've found such wonderful books through you.

    1. Thanks. I agree that it's hard to know which comes first…reading or empathy. But the study I read about had half the subjects read a news article and half read a story and then their levels of empathy were measured. It was pretty interesting, I thought.
      Happy you like these kind of posts. Not everyone does, if my stats are believable. Ah well. What's the point of writing is I don't write about what's important or interesting to me?

    2. Leslie in Oregon

      Susan, were the levels of empathy of the study's subjects also measured before they read a news article or a story? Unless they were, the study may indicate a correlation between reading a news article or a story and a level of empathy thereafter but would not establish that that reading caused that level of empathy. I suspect that in fact, reading good or great fiction can increase one's level of empathy if one already is empathetic. Whether it increases the level of empathy of an un- (or less-) empathetic reader probably has something to do with both the quality of the writing and the attention the reader pays it. In my experience, an unempathetic reader may tend not to be interested in fiction that delves into, much less focuses upon, characters' feelings. The question that intrigues me most is whether a reader who is under some obligation to read some good or great fiction will tend to emerge from that reading with greater empathy than before. Apparently, the medical schools that teach empathy through narrative medicine believe that to be so. (Are those schools also assessing applicants' degree of empathy in making admission decisions?) If memory servces, one of my favorite writers, Dr. Abraham Verghese, is a pioneer in the use of narrative medicine at Stanford Medical School and elsewhere. In addition to reading the articles you've cited in this post, I'm going to review information about Dr. Verghese's work in this vein. Fascinating topic, Susan…thank you, Leslie

    3. I'm pretty sure the study measured "increased levels of empathy." So I guess they must have measured it before and after. Then I know they did it again after a week. I'm going to go back and have a look at that study again. Stu and I got into discussion after I wrote this about whether some people are just more open to change than others and what effect the teaching of empathy would have on them, Reminded me of back in the day when I worked in pharmaceutical sales and they sent us on seminars about selling techniques. Really just methods of persuasion. And we dealt with "resistant" people…where we were counselled that we could not necessarily convince these people, but just bring them to the neutral, open position would be considered success. Stu and I concluded that it was just like teaching high school, some students aren't as "teachable" as others, not because of ability but because of mindset. He likened it to coaching, some athletes aren't coachable because they aren't open to change. So I wonder if these Doctor empathy courses have smirking, eye-rolling naysayers in the back row, like sometimes happened in my high school creative writing courses. I can see this happening if the courses are compulsory.

  5. Yes, totally. Doctors are one issue: the necessity for endless work, basically having to be geeks means that they've missed some undergraduate social experiences from which they might have lived and learned, so to speak. But here's an entirely different kind of thing. My friend was in a slightly irregular (but not immoral or unkind) situation with her ex-husband and new, really old, bf (this is a long and interesting but irrelevant story). Many people dropped her and when she asked why we didn't, totally unexpectedly I said, "I haven't read 500 novels for nothing!" This sums it up.

  6. Beautiful post,Sue
    I read for pleasure and always did-but there is no such a thing as a bad book, where you can't learn something (sometimes only to choose better next time :-),but that's ok,too)!
    I absolutely agree with Iris ,about instinctively believing that one is enriched-and I've learned a lot about people,feelings,living in a lot of different places,not to judge,to understand different people and their choices (or the situations where couldn't be a choice),history,geography……..and -you know all the rest…..
    I am a little backward,I'm afraid (and my childhood was similar to dr Tulsky,with my father's stories about real people with medical problems-never using a name,of course!-,and not about medical problems (who actually were human,after all :-))-so,for my generation here, emphaty was learned (if learning was needed at all)as "good bedside manner". Not today,I'm afraid
    But,I am happy to hear,that in The Age of Trolling and Scrolling (great definition,btw),learning emphaty and reading fiction are applied and the benefits are scientific proofed
    And, as Wendy says-happy to see some friends on your bookcase

    1. Thanks Dottoressa. I was a bit apprehensive about venturing onto your territory, did't want you to be offended. Love that your doctor father intuitively taught you, by example, to see the patient stories beyond their disease. How much we all learned from family supper time stories and conversations, eh?

  7. I love this post and feel validated in my fiction obsession. 🙂 I can't honestly think of any great novel that didn't teach me something. I have a document where I clip (or type) quotes or passages from books that really spoke to me, and I love to go back and reread them periodically. My DH says I read incessantly and I guess he's right. Not all fiction, of course. I also really love a good memoir.

  8. Thank you for this beautifully written post. I'm passing it on to my book club. One of our members is a retired Doctor.
    Love your blog for the interesting and varied content.


  9. I've read a few of these articles (and included a few on a close reading/essay-writing portion of first-year exams when I was teaching) — interesting that many of the doctors I know are avid readers and that the med-school-bound students I taught were generally good writers and readers. Have you ever seen the play Wit (dramatised for the screen with Emma Thompson in the leading role)? I know that your point really isn't to focus on doctors, and you're writing about fiction rather than literature in general (or Donne's poetry, as in the play), but it's an interesting example of the way fictional narratives can create empathy (while illustrating a lack of it!) — and I seem to remember that the play was used in some medical school to exactly the purpose you're pointing to.
    Also recognise some bookshelf friends. 😉

    1. One of the articles I read mentions a doctor who says he was changed by a poem called "When you come into my room" written from the point of view of a patient. I loved that. I haven't seen the film, but I'll look for it. This whole idea of teaching empathy is not new…I know. Something called "Character Education" was big in the schools here a few years ago. And I remember us saying in my department at the time… that's essentially what English and the teaching of literature has always done. Try thing to make kids better citizens and humans but teaching great books. What we used to call the "affective" goals …the ones that happen as a by product of good teaching. The ones that can't be measured on standardized tests. Oops. Must stop before rant on education arises:)

    2. Leslie in Oregon

      Re your possible rant on education: sounds like a good topic for a future post!!

  10. And might we be able to teach a smidge of empathy to a privileged, narcissistic 70-year-old man? Alas, apparently he doesn't like to read, nor to listen. Telling.

    1. Ha. That last article link might interest you, DA. Apparently the same part of the brain that controls empathy also controls self-restraint. The writer said that "impulsivity and selfishness are two halves of the same coin." Hmmmm. Telling, indeed.

  11. A wonderful (albeit non-fiction) book on empathy is "When Breath Becomes Air" by Dr Paul Kalanithi. As well as an MD from Yale School of Medicine, the author held two BAs, an MA in literature from Stanford, plus a Master of Philosophy from Cambridge. It is a moving story of his experience when the doctor becomes the patient. Sorry to veer off into the non-fiction realm, this was an excellent post and I enjoyed seeing one of your bookshelves and comparing authors!

    1. Leslie in Oregon

      "When Breath Becomes Air" is a superb, wise book. What an incredible loss that Paul Kalanithi died so young…

  12. I"ve never understood people who don't read fiction. I couldn't imagine my life without a book. Playing catch up and I have to tell you that I have fond memories of my Howicks. Best jeans ever!

  13. Up until fairly recently, I would have wholeheartedly agreed that reading can increase empathy, and that empathy can make a better world. Reading has always been my favorite way of exploring life. However…lately my books have been giving me ideas. Bad, selfish, fun, ideas. Imaginative empathy only adds relish. I can see why some people have been traditionally against teaching other people to read.

    1. Yep. I'm thinking of all those societies where it was illegal to teach the underclass to read. Might give them ideas…heaven forbid.

  14. Do you know, I just wrote a brilliantly erudite comment here…then lost it. So, I summarise: good readers read everything as long as it is pinned down. And everywhere, anytime. Without books my life would be a sad shadow. Mr Green and I will often spend time together but not speaking for hours, both reading away. Reading while eating – the joy! In the bath…on trains…in bed… Literary snobbery (the idea you might now be ready for a certain book) and literary ignorance are one and the same to me. But then, when I see Strictly on the TV or Bake Off, my own mind goes completely blank at the idea that these might be interesting or culturally important. Thank God.

    1. So sorry you lost your comment. WRT literary snobbery… my least favourite comment at my book club is "It's an easy read." Usually said in a tone that implies that "easy" reads are somewhat less than the more "difficult reads." Whatever that means. To me a simple yet wonderful book (like Brookner's Hotel du Lac) is the hardest to write.

  15. Just started following your blog and we speak to the same market (Canadian women, boomers, readers). I publish a lot of book reviews and as a book lover, you would probably enjoy Anna Porter's In Other Words, her recent memoir. Really enjoying your postings. Thanks. Check out:

  16. I think readers are more empathetic than most because in no other way can you truly understand the thoughts and feelings of individuals whose lives are very different than your own than by reading. How does a young girl living in poverty in India, China, Iran feel? What can you know about the experiences of soldiers? Family life in cultures different than your own? etc, etc…. It's the perfect way to learn about the world and the people in it.

  17. I love reading, I can't imagine being without a book to read. I belong to a book group, we read a wide variety of fiction, and then discuss the books, which is good hearing everyone's perspective.

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