The capacity for empathy

In an interview with the Nashville Review in July 2017, Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Wife” (2003), commented:

“That study about fiction increasing the capacity for empathy- that felt right to me.”

She was referring to the research study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, described in a report in Science (October 2013): “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”. (Reading about this in turn led me to the blog of Dr Raphael Lyne: What Literature Knows About Your Brain: literary criticism listens to cognitive science and talks back too.)

Theory of mind concerns our ability to infer and understand others’ thoughts and feelings. It has been discussed in philosophy at least since Descartes. In the late 1960s, the associated concept of mentalisation emerged in psychoanalytic literature. The field diversified in the 1990s with the work of, amongst others, Simon Baron Cohen and Peter Fonagy.

In 2017, Kidd and Castano published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts their paper, “Different stories: How levels of familiarity with literary and genre fiction relate to mentalising”.

In their original study, Kidd and Castano included in the tests which they ran on participants the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” assessment tool developed by Professor Baron Cohen (notwithstanding Thomas Carlyle’s observation that “The secret of Man’s being is still like the Sphinx’s secret: a riddle that he cannot rede…”).

The interviewer from the Nashville Review asked Meg Wolitzer which books she had read when young which shaped her as a writer. She replied:

“Charlotte’s Web; A Wrinkle In Time; Jane Eyre – in that order, moving from spider/pig friendship to the mysteries of the universe to the search for love and a place in the world.”.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle In Time, observed that “A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”.

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