Why Reading a Book Can Help Us Love Our Fellow Humans

Peace with our colleagues, families, and world may be as close as the nearest library. #ProjectLiteracy

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.

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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