Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Reading for Emotional Health

On this blog, we've talked a lot about the humanizing benefits of reading. We know that it makes us more empathetic. We know that reading great literature connects us to the chain of human thinking in a unique way. And now a study confirms what we've known all along! Reading real literature, as opposed to pop fiction or non-fiction, makes us more empathetic.
"That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking."
This is the first study of its kind in that it made a distinction between reading what I would call true literature and popular fiction or non-fiction. The study was also distinctive in that it found that reading for a mere 3-5 minutes created a greater capacity for reading emotion. Isn't that amazing? A tiny period of time with a good work of literature immediately affects our ability to engage with others in a more meaningful way. It's incredible to think of the effect a childhood spent in the company of good books would have on the formation of that child.

One very important aspect of the study is the distinction between the effect had by popular fiction and non-fiction verses the impact of literary fiction. Those study participants reading excerpts from authors like Wendell Berry were clearly able to engage with increased empathy and social perception. This reinforces the idea that we must provide our children with exposure to the best literature available.

Our study guides often include books that students find challenging to read. Books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or Dante's Inferno, or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle are all books that most students have a difficult time with at the beginning. Usually the student is able (or forced!) to persevere through the reading and ends up enjoying the book and feeling enriched by the experience of reading it. Each of these books pose different challenges in that the language may be difficult to comprehend, the story line may be very foreign, the imagery confusing, but the student who perseveres is being trained in the skills of overcoming a challenge and is, as we now have evidence to prove, developing incredibly important social tools and skills. It seems that these skills come from the requirement that readers of complex literature interact with the story line, plots, and characters in a way that is much more engaged. As one professor stated:
“Frankly, I agree with the study,” said Albert Wendland, who directs a master’s program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. “Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.”
 When we at BFB are considering a book for inclusion in one of our history programs we take in to account many factors such as:

  • Historical veracity (Is this work historically accurate? Is the author reliable?)
  • Historical value (Did this piece of literature play a significant role in shaping history?)
  • Literary quality (Is this piece well-written? Will students find it engaging?)
  • Will this work challenge the student? 
  • If this work is not challenging, will it add to the student's enjoyment of the program and provide a more dynamic portrait of life at that point in history?
We try to strike a balance between books that are fun to read for their own sake (One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, The Golden Goblet, Johnny Tremaine) and add historical color to the study with books that will provide the facts of history and challenge the student to engage critically with the subject. History requires both the inclusion of nonfiction and literary fiction. This approach provides a more complete picture of past and connects us with our roots and traditions.

I found this study to be immensely encouraging in that it reinforces the value of all those hours spent with my nose in a great book. It also means that the hours I spent trying to get through the pages of War and Peace were not wasted despite the fact that I really never connected with the book. It also shows me why there are times when I just want to pick up a book off the latest best-seller list or lose myself in an Agatha Christy mystery. Those are moments of escapism and nothing more and sometimes that's a necessary indulgence. When I want to better my understanding of the world and the people who are my neighbors, I know that reaching for Austen or Hawthorne or Bunyan will prove a more fruitful investment of my time.  

To read more about this fascinating study, click here. And to learn more about using literature to teach history (and empathy!), click here

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