These days, empathy—defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”—can seem to be in short supply. Technology has made it possible to go hours, days, even weeks without encountering another human face-to-face. We can work from home, order groceries online, and stay in touch with friends and family through social media. When we lack the skill to understand where other people are coming from, we disregard their needs. Maybe we cut someone off on the highway, scream at a cashier in the supermarket, or act out violently.
That’s not just a touchy-feely kind of problem. A lack of empathy can negatively impact the bottom line. Disconnected, unhappy employees have been proven to be unproductive, which might be why empathy has lately been touted as one of the most important skills in our global information economy, crucial to problem-solving, collaboration, and innovation. At corporations as large as Unilever, there’s an entirely new kind of C.E.O: Chief Empathy Officer, tasked with fostering a sense of real connection with our fellow humans—be they our co-workers or the consumers we’re selling to.
But how do we go about gaining, or regaining, deeper empathy for our fellow humans? Dr. Gregory S. Berns stumbled upon at least one answer to that question when he led a 2013 study about reading and its impact on our brains. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” he says.
At the study’s outset, Berns and his team became familiar with the resting, non-reading brains of 21 undergraduates at Emory University. For five mornings in a row, participants were subjected to fMRI scans. After that, they were tasked with reading 30 pages of a novel every night. (Pompeii, a dramatization of the famous Mount Vesuvius eruption in ancient Italy.) Each morning, participants were tested with questions about the previous evening’s assigned reading to ensure that they had in fact completed it. Those who did underwent more brain scans.
According to Berns, the results were dramatic early on. On the very first day after participants started reading, researchers noticed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex—many hours after participants had put down their books for the night. Berns says this is called “shadow activity,” akin to muscle memory, but occurring in the brain.
Another region of the brain affected by reading was the central sulcus. This is the primary motor region of the brain, responsible for representing sensations from the body at a neurological level.
Neuroethicist Dr. James Giordano, of Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., explains that the central sulcus “appears to integrate thoughts of various sensations and motor activities." Essentially, because the central sulcus enables us to associate feelings and thoughts with each other, it’s the neurological key to empathy.
After all, empathy is nothing more than the ability to entertain a thought about somebody else’s experience, and translate that thought into feelings. Says Dr. Giordano: “Dr. Berns’ excellent work strongly supports that reading about others' feelings and actions can activate brain areas—notably regions of the temporal cortex and somatic and motor cortex—that enable us to subjectively relate to what these experiences feel like.”
So stories, especially when experienced through the written word, have the ability to move us so deeply that they can actually rewire our brains. Though Dr. Berns’s study didn't examine the long-term effects of reading, it does raise some important questions, and without a doubt reveals the importance of exposing our minds at an early age to literature about people from other backgrounds and cultures.
Imagine if we started, as infants, hearing stories about very different human beings from our parents. Positive stories. Sad stories. Stories woven from real-life psychology. Imagine how much kinder we could be if we kept pursuing these kinds of stories throughout elementary school, high school, college, and beyond. Just as our brains develop throughout childhood and adolescence, our empathy muscle memory would develop, too.
In fact, another 2013 study out of The New School revealed this to be the case. Schoolchildren exposed to stories that focus on the minds of characters, as well as on their relationships, were better able to infer the emotions of other people. As readers, we “fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” David Kidd, co-author of the study, told Scientific American.
Peace with our colleagues, with our families, and even with our world may be as close as the nearest library or bookstore.