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Connoisseurs of emotion

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Friday, Oct 27, 2006

Via BPS Digest (and Marginal Revolution) comes this report that claims reading novels will make a person more empathetic. In the test the researchers conducted, “The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.”


The BPS Digest also notes of the study: “However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more-empathic people prefer reading novels.” Having recently turned away from fiction to read nonfiction almost exclusively, I wonder if this means I’ve become more callous, and my disgruntlement with fiction is indicative of empathy fatigue or something—novels are a means to try to experience empathy on an artificial, preplanned basis. Or perhaps my turn to nonfiction, if I really thought about it, is a potentially pathological means to blunt emotional connection I’m subconsciously trying to ward off. Maybe I’m using the arid world of facts—the dry, detatched prose of The Economist, for instance—as a buffer from the warmth of human contact, which, frankly, can often seem like a hassle and a threat and a call to action when I’m much more comfortable planted on my couch reading.


That’s not a good thing. So as a therapeutic measure, I’ve stayed planted on the couch, and started to read The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells. Something Walter Benn Michaels wrote about it in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism stuck with me—something about how Howells is trying to figure a return to a precapitalist mode of relationships and how the novel delineates zero-sum social status games. (Even when I’m picking novels, I need some hyperpragmatic reason to read them.) I’m about halfway through it, and I can’t say I feel any more empathic, but I’m trying to pay special attention to how the novelist wants to keep my attention focused on minute shiftings of his characters’ attitude, and the means he uses to describe them. What novels do obviously—the raison d’etre, probably for the study—is teach readers ways to think the emotion of others, put it into words that can serve as a comprehensible substitute for something we can never access directly. Our own emotion is often inarticulate, too immediate, and we often don’t bother to analyze it and think it rather than experience it. One of the reasons novels of past centuries continue to be read is that they provide tools for verbalizing emotion and for modelling its recognition. This line of thinking would seem to run counter to the evolutionary psychologists’ beliefs that apprehension of emotion is inborn and immediate (a la Darwin’s study of facial expressions, for instance). From this point of view emotional comprehensioin is hard-wired and verges on instinct—one psychologist even argues that changing your expression can change your mood to suit it. But what novels want to do is slow down the instantaneous instinctual process of reaction to others’ emotional expressions and make it a subject for gratifying intellectual mastery. We derive a grammar of emotion and learn to experience tracing its fine movements as a species of pleasure. We are encouraged to become connoisseurs in emotion—the way Sterne’s narrator is in A Sentimental Journey.


Does this then objectify emotion, trivialize it, or commodify it? Is it wrong to perceive the feelings of others as a kind of delicacy, like a rare cheese or bottle of port? Is being overly concerned with the emotions others are experiencing simply a way of consuming other people? Novels serve to commercialize otherwise intangible emotional experiences; in the process they likely make empathy into something more akin to a shopper’s discernment.


The question of whether altruism exists comes into play in this as well—what motives are ultimately served in our efforts to feel another’s pain? It seems a pertinent question to ask, because perhaps a deeper empathy can be achieved once the more self-serving level is interrogated a bit. Ultimately, I guess I would need to know more about how the study measure empathy to know whether there might be differences between that kind of empathy and some other preferable kind that isn’t instrumentalized through entertainment product. Until then I’ll keep reading Howells and hope things work out for “sly” Penelope.

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