Influence. Down through history stories have been used to convey moral imperatives, contribute to social cohesion and provide entertainment. From sitting around a fire in a group to the traveling minstrel to the literary author, the evolution of our species’ story-telling has increased in scope even as it has changed in its form. To reach thousands if not millions now only takes the steady click-clack of a keyboard followed by the eventual release of a digital file onto the internet. Many lament how language seems to be languishing in the land of tweets and internet slang, while others with notable examples point to the bullying and trolling, but the usage of story-telling has not diminished in its potential to expand our understanding of self and others.

Stories are not simply what is found between pages or expressed in lengthy verbal expositions. They are the projections of our imagination, relationally connected with the world we perceive and the world we wish existed. Classic literature is one form, but so are novels, so-called non-fiction and even the comments we leave online in conversational threads. Each example is a behavioral extension of an identity brought up to deal with a particular social situation. An identity is a container for a particular set of mental constructs and learned behavior. We have many of them, like hats or outfits we put on for different occasions. What happens when one encounters something or someone new is where the ebb and flow of personal change can and does occur. That encounter is a story or narrative.

A team led by Judith Lysaker of Purdue University conducted an experimental intervention with 22 second- and third-grade students who were exhibiting difficulties with both reading comprehension and social relationships. The children participated in a reading group that focused not only on understanding the text but also on exploring the thoughts, intentions, and emotions of the characters in the books. For example, the students were asked to write a letter from a particular character’s perspective.

This experiment, remarked upon in Observer Vol.27, No.7 September, 2014, “Literary Character,” led to the increase in reading comprehension and the ability to imagine the emotions of others. Active learning through the study of a story opened up the imaginative potential such that empathy increased. This was done through reading and good teaching. How much more could be done if narratives were seen in everything people do?

Working with adults, focusing in particular on theory of mind (ToM: understanding other people’s mental states), further research noted:

The study suggests that not just any fiction helps foster ToM. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers, Kidd and Castano assert.
“Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances,” they wrote. “Through the use of … stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”

The key points here are concerned with “intellectual engagement” and “creative thought.” These intentional behaviors broaden a person’s ideas about others through empathic union, utilizing the imagination to see connections otherwise unnoticed. Those “complicated individuals” “warrant exploration” because of the desire of the reader. The existence of that desire, not simply the form of the literature is paramount, as in the same article it is noted:

even books populated by wizards, dragons, vampires, and aliens can strive to depict important aspects of the human experience.

How often in school or when meeting other people, has there been a feeling of disconnection and then suddenly finding oneself drawn to a subject or a person? That draw is the feeling of intentional connection. Such is not limited to academic pursuits, but pervades our entire lives, pushing us to pursue or not pursue one or another personal relationship or experience.

The dual-meaning of character as both a person or attribute is important to keep in mind. We express our self-character through the myriad of identities used to interact within experiences. The depth of our attribute-character is determined by what we focus on when doing so. What do we see when someone tells a story, regardless of its length or depth? The friend or family member or lover is regarded positively, but even they are limited to the extent that the shared stories work at doing so. Far more then is the perceived enemy, often broken down to a mere caricature. Even the casual comment carries with it an identity and narrative that connects back and outward into a history we are not aware of.

The extent of our ability to respond to changing experiences is determined largely by our perceptual capacity. This is not the simplicity of the positive thinking movement, this is the experiencing of life as a tapestry of narrative threads, each with degrees of good and bad, positive and negative, often both at the same time. Books and the stories they contain are gateways into other worlds, so much more then are people and the narratives they’re spinning. The desire to pursue a broader understanding is to engage creatively, illuminating one’s own experience through the lens of another and in so doing, find out all that’s been missing.

 

© David Teachout

8 comments

  1. This is very interesting. I’m finishing up my master’s in psychology so I always enjoy reading studies and the various outcomes that come from them.

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  2. This really clicked with me. As an English teacher/avid reader, I find that I’m more empathetic because I’ve “experienced” a wide variety of people and situations through reading. Through reading books that make us think “What would I do in this situation?”, readers can be more thoughtful and compassionate.

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    1. Completely agree Emily. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and noticed that as the years have gone by the more complex the characters are the more interested I become, likely due to their increased similarity to real people. I always keep in mind there are limits to any form of perception, whether it be literature or interpersonal experience, but any form helps me broaden my awareness further. The fascination with people provides not a few head-shakes at times, but even more smiles.

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  3. fascinating concepts – thanks for sharing this. It certainly makes sense that reading can broaden our minds and increase empathy when we might otherwise have none. I always feel like books improve my life, but it’s interesting to think they actually, literally, do haha. thanks for this

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    1. You are most welcome. This is the first of weekly Wednesday posts based on citing psychological research. I try to make each relevant to how we live our lives.

      Stories are fascinating, particularly with how we use them and decide to pursue their understanding. They’re not just pages, they’re people’s lives.

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