Do art and literature cultivate empathy?


Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

This article is part of our series on understanding others’ feelings. In it we examine empathy, including what it is, whether our doctors need more of it, and when too much may not be a good thing.


A common argument for the value of the arts is the claim they cultivate empathy. Reading literature, viewing quality cinema and listening to fine music refine our sensibilities and make us better and more humane – or so the argument goes.

By taking us out of ourselves, art and literature make us open to and mindful of others. As the novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written, “literature sucks you into another psyche”.

Whether the arts do in fact enhance empathy – whether they suck us into other minds or just deeper into our own – is moot. What is certain is that highly empathic people tend to have distinctive cultural preferences.

Empathic people may prefer drama and romantic movies.
from www.shutterstock.com

Empathy’s dual character

Research by Cambridge University psychologists reveals five dimensions on which our preferences vary. People high on the “dark” dimension enjoy intense and edgy genres such as punk and metal music, horror movies and erotic fiction.

Those whose preferences are captured by the “thrilling” dimension enjoy action movies, adventure fiction and sci-fi. “Cerebral” people are drawn to news and current events, documentaries, educational programming and non-fiction.

And highly empathic people are most likely to have entertainment preferences that match the two remaining dimensions: “communal” and “aesthetic”.

Communal preferences focus on people and relationships, including a fondness for TV talk-shows, dramas and romantic movies, and popular music. Aesthetic preferences are more highbrow, running to classical music, arts and history programs and independent and subtitled movies.

The fact these two quite distinct sorts of cultural genres appeal to empathic individuals speaks to the dual character of empathy. On the one hand it leads people to take an interest in the familiar everyday dramas of social interaction. On the other, it draws us into an imaginative engagement with minds, experiences and worlds that are different from our own.

A study by Kidd and Castano found people who read literary fiction performed better on empathy tests.
Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Empathic people may not only prefer particular entertainment genres, but also have a distinctive response to the negative emotions conveyed by them.

There is some evidence empathic individuals are relatively averse to genres involving violence and horror, perhaps because they resonate acutely to the pain experienced by the bloodied fictional victims.

In contrast, empathic individuals revel in other negative emotions conveyed by the arts. For example, one study showed people who score high on absorption – a tendency to become deeply engaged with particular experiences that is strongly associated with empathy – are more likely to enjoy negative emotions conveyed by music.

Empathy may therefore make some negative emotions more unpleasant while making others paradoxically enjoyable.

Does art nurture empathy?

But while empathy is associated with being drawn to the arts, the question remains: do the arts actively promote it, or merely appeal to already sensitive souls? The causal arrow could point in two directions.

Exposure to literature and the sorts of movies that do not involve car chases might nurture our capacity to get inside the skins of other people. Alternatively, people who already have well developed empathic abilities might simply find the arts more engaging, even if their exposure to it does not hone those abilities.

In 2013, psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano ran five experiments to test whether exposure to literary fiction enhances empathy.

Genres such as violence and horror may not appeal to empathic people.
John Flickr, CC BY

In each experiment, they randomly assigned one group of study participants to read short passages of literary fiction excerpted from National Book Award finalists.

One or more other groups were assigned to read passages of nonfiction, popular fiction (drawn from Amazon.com bestsellers) or nothing at all.

After reading the passages, participants completed tests measuring their Theory of Mind – the ability to detect and understand other people’s mental states, which is the foundation for empathy.

Theory of Mind was measured mostly using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. In this test, people must correctly guess a series of emotional expressions from photographs of the eyes.

In each of Kidd and Castano’s studies, people who had just read literary fiction performed better on the empathy measures. The researchers argued that any general empathy-promoting function of fiction could not explain this benefit, as it was restricted to literary rather than popular fiction. Instead, they argued, literary fiction facilitates empathy by inducing readers to take “an active writerly role” in understanding the mental lives of the characters.

In essence, Kidd and Castano argue literary fiction uniquely fosters the capacity to simulate the nuances of others’ experience.

This claim is supported by evidence the brain networks involved in making sense of other minds are activated strongly when people read literary depictions of other people.

Although the effects of reading literature on empathy might be short-lived, the researchers speculated it might build enduring empathy in avid readers. Indeed, there is ample evidence people who read more fiction perform better on tests of Theory of Mind.

Reading literary fiction may train up the neural networks that underpin empathy, with lasting benefits.

Reading a lot of fiction may train the neural networks that underpin empathy.
David Mulder/Flickr, CC BY

Jury still out

Will exposure to literature and the arts make you a better person? Perhaps, but the jury is still out. Several labs have failed to replicate the original finding of even fleeting effects of literary fiction on the capacity to step into another person’s shoes.

It is also increasingly clear that taking that step does not invariably lead to better behaviour. Taking another’s perspective in a competitive situation, for instance, makes people behave more unethically. And taking the perspective of people who we see as a threat can make us view them more negatively.

So we should not expect lovers of art and literature to be nicer people, just a little better at understanding the complexities of experience.

Empathy may not always make us more humane, but it may have other benefits. As Steve Martin said, “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”


Read yesterday’s introductory essay on empathy here.

The Conversation

Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Tumblr Bookish Art


Are you into bookisk art? The link below is to an article that takes a look at some great tumblr blogs for bookish art.

For more visit:
http://bookriot.com/2015/08/17/best-bookish-art-tumblr/

Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet


‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Phantoms-Bookshelves-Jacques-Bonnet/dp/1590207599/

Book Art: Skull Bookshelf Sculptures


It appears as though book art is not confined to using books to make various forms of art, such as book sculptures – book art can also involve the use of the bookcase and bookshelf as well.

For more visit:
http://laughingsquid.com/skull-bookshelf-sculptures/

Article: Text Art – Portraits Made from Thousands of Words


The link below is to an article featuring examples of text art (Textportraits) by Ralph Ueltzhoefer.

For more visit:
http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/ralph-ueltzhoeffer-textportraits

Article: Book Art – Alexander Korzer-Robinson


The link below is to an article featuring a number of photos of book art by Alexander Korzer-Robinson. In the comments section of the article there are comments regarding the destruction of old books in book art. What do you think of destroying old books to make book art? Share your thoughts in the comments here.

For more visit:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/9211702/Book-sculpting-by-Alexander-Korzer-Robinson.html.