Stories as agents of personal transformation
January 16, 2015 12:25 AM   Subscribe

recently on Aeon: not only do stories shape our thought processes in many ways similar to lived experience, they may also strengthen empathy as readers map the narratives of authors.
posted by wallawallasweet (7 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The fictional character was alive for the student at that crucial moment, an inspiration, a stranger become a friend,’ Waxler writes. ‘It was not an exaggeration to say that a story had caught this student’s attention and perhaps saved his life that day.’

Wonderful. Narrative therapy, the Aboriginal branch I'm thinking of, can really help people with fragmented lives to recover from trauma. There's more than one statement I'd like to quote, but if I can only quote one for now, it will be this one.
posted by quiet earth at 1:05 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Anyone interested in academic research around the connection between reading narrative fiction and developing empathy should read Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley's "The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience" [pdf]. The gist of the article is that by reading fiction, we immerse ourselves in a simulation of real life in which we can try on other people's lives and experiences and other situations. By "being" other people for the time that we read these narratives, we can project ourselves onto them, try on various possible responses, and generalize these discoveries to our own real lives.

The Mar Lab has lots of downloadable pdfs related to empathy and reading, available for free on this page (note: not all the papers on that page are on that topic).

The article I linked above talks not only about narrative fiction, but also mentions other mediums like film. Roger Ebert commented on the connection between watching movies and developing empathy in his acceptance speech for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You can listen to a bit of that speech in this trailer for the 16th annual Ebertfest.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:06 AM on January 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

Quiet earth, your comment made me think about this article on narrative medicine. I am very interested in how doctors and other medical practitioners can improve their practice by engaging in forms of narrative medicine--and they can develop these skills through close reading of literature.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:23 AM on January 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Isn't this why we read?
posted by Oyéah at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I believe strongly that narrative is the lens that we see the world through and how we communicate values and beliefs.

I feel like someone has done research on this, but I think that the stereotype or trend of narrative fiction being seen as a feminine interest is all captured up in our expectations for women to be empathetic. According to the article, novels help us empathize, so a women's hobby of reading fiction and going to book club fits perfectly into our proscribed roles in society and emotional workers.
posted by Gor-ella at 1:12 PM on January 16, 2015

This puts an interesting spin on propaganda, which the article touches on towards the end. When you have a narrative consciously constructed to shift perceptions or reinforce certain modes of thought over others, it usually feels false. Perhaps that's because those narratives exclude dimensions of human experience which encourage the acceptance of them as 'a good description of people we can identify with. A hero who is only a hero is no real hero at all. The cogs of empathy must mesh with the workings of the story, or the power is lost.

Then there's how the power of narrative illuminates who we are - not on an individual level, although of course that's how a particular story strikes home, but what the underlying machineries of self might be. The great paradox that has nagged at me ever since the wonder about self began is that we are both individuals located in our heads, with an apparent continuity of consciousness and a very strong self-identity, and a society. That soceity is itself made of so many interlocking relationships, individual and group, and our sense of self in some way extends out through all of it. I do not stop at my skin. Being a take-it-apart sort, I have always wondered how that works, and what it can tell us about the mysteries of consciousness.

Narrative must, must, must be part of this. It's telepathy - beyond telepathy, because it doesn't just communicate, it transforms. I get a glimpse, sometimes, of the shapes of the things that lie beneath, and I will keep going back there.
posted by Devonian at 1:14 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Devonian, one of the things I've enjoyed learning about Zen as an adult is the somewhat paradoxical idea that we are all the same being, sometimes phrased as "we're not separate beings". I'm not always sure what that means, but with time there's a sense that one's "self" becomes attenuated in relation to the experiences of everyday life. And it's becoming clear that this self is a narrative framework that's necessary to make sense of all the stories around my personal experience. Almost all of those stories are shared with other people and places. I do not stop at my skin.
posted by sneebler at 5:29 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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