In 1909 psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the term empathy into the English language as the translation of the German term Einfühlung, meaning “feeling into”. At this time in the 19th century, however, the term pertained to the thinking of philosophical aesthetics. Romantic thinkers viewed empathy as one’s ability to “feel into” nature and art, proposing that it was a remedy for the scientific attitude of impassively dissecting nature into its elements.
It was then the work of Professor Theodor Lipps which transformed empathy from a concept of philosophical aesthetics into a more psychological concept.
For Lipps, empathy also had to be understood as being the primary basis for recognising other people as minded creatures. From here, the idea of the imaginative act of stepping in another’s shoes and understanding the world from their point of view comes into fruition.
While psychological studies and development on empathy continues to this day, the actual practise of empathy seems to be dwindling.
As a human population, we’re losing empathy. Research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University found that students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights. Her book The Narcissism Epidemic: The Age of Living in Entitlement, shows us that there is a relentless rise in narcissism (me, me, me instead of oh I don’t know, consideration of other people) in current culture. Between the examples of bullying YouTube videos and something as disturbing as Selfies at Funerals, there was one really standout example of a girl who was planning her sweet 16th party and wanted a major road blocked off to have a marching band walk down a red carpet to her home.
Even out of this sample size research is still yielding similar findings. Research by the Scanlon Foundation in Australia surfaces some interesting insights regarding the current state of mind of Australians regarding social cohesion. Their national report, Mapping Social Cohesionmeasured five domains of attitude by interviewing Australians nationally.
The results indicated that acceptance/rejection fell by 9.8 points (which reflected increased reported experiences of discrimination), belonging and worth both fell by 4.1 and 2.7 points respectively, and social justice and equity rose by 2.9 points. What is to note, however, is that all five domains are all below their 2007 benchmark level.
But it’s not all that bad. The truth is just that we’re not really living up to our empathic potential. For most of us empathy is an innate part of our psychological and mental foundation.
Neuroscientists have discovered that almost all of us have a ten-section empathy circuit wired into our brains. But just how can we tap into empathy?
Well, you’re in luck. Recent studies have found that reading fiction can make you a better person. Research by Raymond Mar has shown that transporting yourself into narrative can lend better abilities to empathise and improve Theory of Mind (ToM) – which refers to how we develop theories about other people’s mind, particularly their mental states.
Another study in Science, found that reading literary fiction improves ToM. Through their study, the authors showed that literary fiction affects ToM processes because it forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction.
Reading a story about the struggles of another’s life, the injustices they may suffer, and the mental states they may traverse, depicts a reality that we might have never otherwise contemplated. A story can depict another reality through the consciousness of protagonists in a story, forcing a reader to perceive the world simultaneously from different viewpoints.
Slate’s Mark O'Connell agrees. He writes that “the consensus among writers has generally been that imaging ourselves into fictional minds and lives is something that increases our moral faculties, a practise that grows our capacity for empathic engagement with the minds and lives of actually existing other humans.”
Look to George Orwell. In his book – based on true events – Down and Out in Paris and London,Orwell roughed it on the streets of East London, after a month of employment he had confirmed fell through. He had to spend 1 month with only 30 shillings. Or in To Kill A Mockingbird, readers see the consequences of racial discrimination sadly unfold. Even Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath takes us through the times of The Great Depression.
Throughout these novels, readers experience life from a different viewpoint which they might not have experienced otherwise. These stories and their characters start to form a mini-reality for us that we can become a part of, albeit temporarily, and develop some new sensitivities that we can incorporate into our real lives.
Instead of disregarding people for being a certain way, maybe try to figure out why.
If the studies show anything, it’s evidence that is in accordance with the empathy circuit finding. We’re all hard-wired for potential; we’re just not living up to it, yet, and books appear to be a simple way in which we can all start to tap into that empathy goodness.
One of the most poignant pieces of advice that Atticus gives to Scout in is that “…you’ll never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” How true it is, but we have to tap into and exercise this potential, or else we might be requesting to have major roads blocked off for our own personal marching bands, and it may not even be our birthday.
Image: Hannah Greethead