The Strange Science of Empathy and Reading


My stomach drops.  Suddenly everything makes sense and the lucidity I achieve makes me want to vomit.  Even re-reading this book after several years, I am unprepared for the revelation of what it means to “complete” in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  This is empathy and reading in action.

The reader plunges into a child’s fantasy world.  There are sports games at an exclusive boarding school.  The rambling old house has children of all ages running through it.  Guardians look on and teach daily classes.  The childhood cares give way to adolescent moodiness, overlaid with something darker.  By this point the characters are as entrancing as they are elusive.

Kathy H. is the narrator.  It is hard not to love Kathy.  The reader meets her when she is thirty-one years old; the reader knows her profession.  Ishiguro gives his readers a remarkable amount of information and is forgettable amidst school yard antics and teenage crushes.  I grow up with Kathy.  I know about her girlhood crush on Tommy and her awkward friendship with Ruth.  I feel the crushing blow when Ruth tells Kathy Tommy would never want to sleep with her.

A strange story of reading, empathy, and science

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in another’s situation”.

2013 saw the publication of a ground-breaking study.  Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York revealed to the world reading makes people more empathetic.  Specifically, reading great literary fiction.  However, since then scientists have tried to replicate the study and achieve similar results.  As of 2016, a study co-authored by Thalia Goldstein of Pace University in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology questioned the results.

While the two studies achieved similar results for long term fiction readers.  More specifically, lifelong fiction readers had better performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET).  The RMET asks participants to read the emotion in the eyes of an actor in a photo.  Goldstein admits this could mean fiction readers are better at imagining the emotions of others.  However, she is quick to point out this could be a correlation and not a causation in an interview with The Atlantic in late 2016.

A 2012 study, reported in the New York Times, shows when reading about ideas associated with a sensory pathway those areas of our brain light up on an MRI scan.  “When subjects looked at the Spanish words for ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee,’ their primary olfactory cortex lit up” the New York Times reported.   It was the same with motion, according to the same article.

The Break-Down

All the scientific articles seem to disagree, does reading make one more empathetic?  Some psychologists say yes, others no.  Neuroscientists are very interested in how our imagination works.  All this complex information means we are very imaginative and reading is one of the best and most immersive ways to activate our imagination.

Books describe sights, smells, textures, sounds, and tastes.  I was once at a lunch where Ian Rankin was describing his latest book.  I asked about a comic book he had authored and whether he was contemplating writing another one.

I remember his response to this day, even though it was several years ago.  “It was really hard writing a comic book.  I had to describe everything to the artist.  I had to tell him exactly how things should look.  When I write a novel, I can just say it is a dilapidated red barn and you imagine whatever you think a barn looks like.”

Rankin is correct, of course.  I recall all the red barns I have ever seen and make it fit into the scene described on the page.  Throw in the cold weather, grey skies, and the smell of the sea side, and you have a full scene.  It is immersive and a reader must imagine every part of it.

Conclusions

I can hear all of you out there saying so what.  What does all this actually mean?

Good question.

It means lifelong fiction readers are very good at imagining every aspect of a book.  Everything from the texture of a dress to the taste of bread.  The raise of goosebumps on someone’s skin when they are cold is different to the goosebumps you get from being afraid.

Readers imagine emotional states.   Knowing what sadness looks like means picturing it while reading is easier.  And it works in reverse.  After imagining it we know when a person is happy in real life.

Does this mean readers have more empathy?  Not really.  It means readers can recognize the signs of emotions.  It means readers might be more likely to extend emotional intelligence into imagining themselves in place of another and be slightly more successful because they have had so much practice.

Back to the Book

The revelation does not even come at the end of the book.  It creeps in early.  There are hints within the first three pages.  Kathy H.’s patient who does not make it after his third donation.  Miss Lucy’s clear remarks about the children’s purpose in life to donate all their vital organs in the sports pavilion.  The first time you see the word “complete” used in Ishiguro’s recognizable context is on page 101 in my copy, “my own donor had just completed the night before … it had been an untidy operation.”  It is less than half way through the book and Ishiguro shows no inclination towards stopping.

Near the end of the book, when Ruth “completes” is heart wrenching.  Ishiguro wrings every last drop of emotion from his reader, “as she was twisting herself in a way that seemed scarily unnatural, and I was on the verge of calling the nurses for more painkillers, just for a few seconds, no more, she looked straight at me and she knew exactly who I was. It was one of those little islands of lucidity donors sometimes get to in the midst of their ghastly battles.” I have to put Never Let Me Go down for a few hours.  I will come back to it later in the evening with greater equanimity.  Ready to submerge myself in the emotion of the final fifty pages.

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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