“You be that one,” I remember my daughter saying to a companion. “And I’ll be this one.” My daughter was about five at the time, and, as in the imaginary games played by children of that age, she and her friend were arranging roles. But they weren’t about to play a game. They were preparing to watch a movie.

We tend to think of movie watching or book reading as passive activities. That may be true physically, but it’s not true emotionally. When we watch a film or read a novel, we join ourselves to a character’s trajectory through the story world. We see things from their point of view—feel scared when they are threatened, wounded when they are hurt, pleased when they succeed. These feelings are familiar to us as readers or viewers. But our propensity to identify with characters is actually a remarkable demonstration of our ability to empathize with others.

© Leigh Wells

When we examine this process of identification in fiction, we appreciate the importance of empathy—not only in enjoying works of literature, but in helping us form connections with those around us in the real world. The feelings elicited by fiction go beyond the words on a page or the images on a screen. Far from being solitary activities, reading books or watching movies or plays actually can help train us in the art of being human. These effects derive from our cognitive capacity for empathy, and there are indications that they can help shape our relationships with friends, family, and fellow citizens.

The stuff dreams are made on

In the West, the tradition of understanding literature derives from Aristotle who, nearly 2,400 years ago, wrote a book called Poetics. The subject matter of his book was not just poetry. More broadly it was what we now call fiction, which, like poetry, means “something made.” Aristotle said that whereas history lets us know what has happened, poetry (fiction) is more important because it is about what can happen.

The central term in Poetics is mimesis, the relation of the story to the way the world works. This term can be interpreted in two ways. If you read an English translation, you will see the Greek word mimesis indicated by translations like “copying,” “imitation,” or “representation.” These translations get it half right. While literary art can serve to imitate the world—what Hamlet called holding “the mirror up to nature”—it can also create new worlds. In other words, Aristotle thought that great plays, such as the tragedies of Sophocles, which he discussed in Poetics, created worlds of the imagination. Shakespeare likened this to the way we dream, such as when Prospero, the protagonist in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, says that humans “are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Dream is an apt metaphor because, when we dream, without any input from eyes or ears, we create worlds of places, people, and emotions. What a good story does, by means of black marks on the white pages of a novel, or by the actions of a small group of people several yards away on a stage, or by the flickering images on a screen, is to offer the materials—a kind of kit—to start up and run the dream of the story world on your mind. A story is a partnership. The author writes it, and the reader or audience member brings it alive.

The emotions that you experience as you breathe life into a story are related to the characters, but they are not the characters’ emotions. They are yours. How does this happen? How can an artificial world conjure up such real emotions, and what mental capacities do we engage in order to feel those emotions? Brilliant though Aristotle was, his Poetics is curiously silent on this question, as is much of the canon of Western literary theory that followed him.

But other traditions—one of Western psychology, one of Eastern literature—can help shed light on how fiction elicits such empathic responses from us.

Moving pictures

Empathy can be thought of as feeling with someone, or for them. In a recent study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity, Tania Singer and her colleagues showed that a basis for empathy can be identified in the brain. Singer and her colleagues administered electric shocks to volunteers and also gave these volunteers signals when a loved one, present in the next room, was being shocked. In some parts of the volunteers’ brains, activation occurred only when they themselves received a shock, but other parts associated with feeling pain were activated both when the volunteers received a shock and when they knew their loved one was getting a shock. Singer and her colleagues describe this dual activation as the emotional aspect of pain. They argue that their results show that the empathic response that we feel for someone we know and like is the same as the emotional aspect we feel ourselves.

That will ring true for anyone who’s ever been caught up in a play, book, or movie—anyone who has wept for the young lovers in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or with the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or with those who have suffered in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Our fondness for fiction shows that we enjoy feeling with other people, even when sometimes the feelings are negative. In another recent psychological study, Tom Trabasso and Jennifer Chung asked 20 viewers to watch two films, Blade Runner and Vertigo. Each film was stopped at 12 different times. Soon after the beginning of each movie, and again at the end, all the viewers rated their liking for the protagonist and for the antagonist. One set of ten viewers had the job of saying, at each of the film’s 12 stopping points, how well or how poorly things were going for the protagonist and for the antagonist. These ratings agreed with the experimenters’ own analysis of the characters’ goals and actions. The job of the other set of 10 viewers was to rate what emotions, and of what intensity, they themselves were experiencing at each point where the film was stopped. These viewers experienced more positive emotions at points where things went well for the liked protagonist or badly for the disliked antagonist (as rated by the first set of ten viewers); they also felt negative emotions when things went badly for the protagonist or well for the antagonist.

So, whenever we read a novel, look at a movie, or even watch a sports match, we tend to cast our lot with someone we find likable. When a favored character in a story does well, we feel pleased; when a disliked character succeeds, we are displeased.

This process seems rather basic. It is rather basic. If this liking for a protagonist were all there was to it, reading fiction and watching dramas would not be much different than going on a roller-coaster ride. Indeed some books and movies do little more than offer just such an experience. They are called thrillers. But in some books and films, much more can occur. Along with the basic process of empathic identification, we can start to extend ourselves into situations we have never experienced, feel for people very different from ourselves, and begin to understand such people in ways we may have never thought possible. George Eliot, a novelist whose books offer such effects, put it like this:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. ... Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

What Eliot is implying is that art is capable of inducing one of the most profound aspects of empathy: the ability to sensitize us to the emotions of other people, transcending the limits of our own experiences and perspective. This wasn’t territory that Aristotle covered.

In India, there has been a literary tradition parallel to that of the West that does address this topic. In this Eastern tradition, readers’ and audience members’ emotions have had a more central role. The idea in Indian poetics is that fictional characters and fictional situations have to be created in the minds of readers and audience members by suggestion. The Sanskrit term for this suggestion is dhvani. This aspect of the tradition is not so different from Aristotle’s idea of the world-creating aspect of mimesis. But the Eastern notion, for which there is no Aristotelian parallel, is that what is suggested to readers or audience members in their empathically imagined worlds are special literary emotions, called rasas. (See sidebar.)

The job of writers or actors is to write or act in such a way that the reader/audience experiences these rasas. The Indian theorists thought that we experienced rasas because, by means of the suggestiveness of the poetry and the actors’ skills, memories would be brought to mind from the whole range of past lives. We moderns would probably now say that we experience emotions even from outside our own experience because of our kinship with the rest of humanity. But here is the important point that was stressed by the Indian theorists: Rasas are like everyday emotions, except that we experience these literary emotions without the thick crust of egotism that often blinds us to the implications of our ordinary emotions in our daily lives. For instance, if we are sexually attracted to someone in ordinary life, we can become rather selfish. Indeed in the West, falling in love is often given as a reason for suspending other social obligations. In a play or novel, however, we not only feel empathically with the character in love, but we can feel with other characters as well. The idea of a rasa is that we can feel the emotion, but also understand its social implications without our usual, often self-interested, involvement. We can experience the energizing aspects of love, but also—depending on the context—understand its potential effects on others.

You may be surprised to learn that, in the West, the person who seems to have been the first to write about empathic processes in literature was Adam Smith, who became famous for his ideas about how the market regulated itself as if by an “invisible hand.” Smith’s abiding interest was in the glue that holds society together. His first book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it he argued that an important component of this glue is what I am here calling empathy, which he called sympathy or compassion. Reading, he argued, draws on sympathy, because we necessarily become an interested but “impartial spectator” in other lives. We become involved in what is going on in the story, but not as if it were happening to us directly. We might become angry in sympathy with a protagonist, but without the narrow-minded vindictiveness that can occur when injustices affect us directly. The argument is the same as that of the rasa theorists, although it seems unlikely that Smith knew about them.

Reading certain kinds of fiction, then, is the very model of how we might properly view events in our social world. It is right that they engage our emotions, as if they were happening to someone with whom we are closely involved, but not directly to us. In literature we feel the pain of the downtrodden, the anguish of defeat, or the joy of victory—but in a safe space. In this space, we can, as it were, practice empathy. We can refine our human capacities of emotional understanding. We can hone our ability to feel with other people who, in ordinary life, might seem too foreign—or too threatening—to elicit our sympathies. Perhaps, then, when we return to our real lives, we can better understand why people act the way they do, and react with caution, even compassion, toward them.

In her book Poetic Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has taken Adam Smith’s argument further and claimed that reading, particularly of certain novels, not only uses our faculties as sympathetic spectators, but it exercises them in such a way as to make us better citizens when it comes to social issues such as justice. Nussbaum points out that what we really mean by justice is not just mechanically applying a rule book. It involves being able to understand imaginatively and deeply what is going on both for perpetrators and for victims. It is hard to think how this can be better achieved than through certain kinds of literature. Even some television shows, such as Law and Order, are written to enable the viewer to enter imaginatively into both sides of issues such as racism, women’s rights, and questions about whether people who are seriously mentally ill can act voluntarily.

Reading can be an escape—a ride on an emotional roller coaster. But we can also read and go to the theater to extend our sympathies. In Romeo and Juliet, we can feel for the adolescent Juliet as she finds herself in love with someone her parents hate because he belongs to the wrong family. In The Tempest, we can feel for the aging Prospero as he nears the end of his career. Our feelings are for these characters, but they are our own feelings. In the hands of writers like William Shakespeare or George Eliot, we can perhaps understand these feelings better than if they were caused by events in our own lives. Works of fiction draw on our skills of empathy, and allow us to practice these skills. Then not only do they extend our individual experience, but they can become topics of discussion with others, who can show us even further implications of our emotions than what we had perceived ourselves.

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