“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
These words, spoken by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, provide the best definition of empathy I can find. And the irony is that reading fictional books like Lee’s classic is a great way to build empathy in students, according to multiple studies.
For example, a 2014 study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University used MRI to identify the parts of the brain activated when reading different texts. Researchers found that when reading fiction, our brains are literally “living” along with the characters.
They had participants read Chapter 9 from Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone, the chapter in which Harry learns to fly a broom, and something interesting happened in participants’ brains: the areas of the brain responsible for movement and understanding people’s intentions were intensely activated. Basically, as Harry flew, or attempted to, readers felt like they were flying with him. Their brains showed they were experiencing movement. Anyone who has gotten lost in a good book already knows this is true.
So how does getting lost in a character’s thoughts and actions translate to being more empathetic in our own lives? From personal experience, I have gained empathy as a result of reading in two different ways. The first is I see my own experience in a character’s experience and, as a result, feel less alone. An example of this comes from my childhood.
I vividly remember reading Bridge to Terabithia as a 4th grader. My grandfather had just passed away from cancer; it was the first time I had lost someone close to me. I honestly didn’t know how I should respond. I remember thinking I should be brave for my father because he had just lost his dad. But as I read Jess’s anguish at losing his best friend, Leslie, I completely identified and just broke down in tears. Through Jess I understood it was okay to cry and be terribly sad, because the world would never be quite the same without this person in it.
A second way I have gained empathy through reading is by learning there is always a story behind mean, nasty people, and usually that story is full of pain and sadness. This makes me think twice about being nasty in return. I have seen this empathy emerge in my students as well when reading about two characters in particular: Snape from the Harry Potter series and Mrs. Dubose from To Kill A Mockingbird.
When students realize that all Snape has done through the entire series stems from his unrequited love for Harry’s mom, it is heartbreaking. They are equally floored when they realize Mrs. Dubose, the nasty lady always yelling at Jem and Scout Finch, is secretly battling a drug addiction and trying to wean herself from the drug before she dies. These characters lead to powerful discussions about the secret battles fought by people in my students’ lives.
Some people argue that watching television or films offers just as good a glimpse into others as books do, but research says otherwise, especially for children. A 2013 Ohio State University study of over 100 preschoolers found that kids who watched more television, and especially those who had TV’s in their bedrooms, had a weaker understanding of the emotional states and feelings of others. And while there are some engaging shows and films that delve deeply into characters, many contain more simplistic, underdeveloped characters. In short, we don’t get to know and understand the characters on the same level as we do when reading a good book.
As the holiday season approaches, and we sing songs of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” how should we go about ensuring peace and feelings of goodwill? How about by seeking to understand each other, by being empathetic? As Atticus said, it is essential if we want to get along with “all kinds of folks.”
So turn off those televisions and devices, and read to your kids. And when they are off to sleep, go read a book for yourself or listen to one on tape. Get lost in someone else’s story.