Wednesday, October 9, 2013

We Are What We Read. And Watch

An article by Julianne Chiaet at Scientific American notes that research is showing that reading literary fiction actually heightens the empathy we have for other people. Her article causes me to wonder about what I think is a very important question, but first here's an excerpt from her report:
Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy.

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence. The study data could inform debates over how much fiction should be included in educational curricula and whether reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy. Castano also hopes the finding will encourage autistic people to engage in more literary fiction, in the hope it could improve their ability to empathize without the side effects of medication.
Here's my question: If what people read can effect their empathy, can what they watch do the same thing, and if reading literary fiction and viewing movies of a similar nature can heighten empathy are there genres of books and movies that diminish it? Can we be raising a generation of young people steeped in pornography, violent movies and video games which are turning some of them into cold, unfeeling, moral zombies and making many more less empathetic than they would otherwise be?

Could the reason there are so many who revel in violence, who have little or no empathy for other human beings, be a result of a culture that has extinguished empathy by saturating young minds with brutal images?

I would be stunned if the answer to this question ever turned out to be "no" because it seems almost self-evident, certainly obvious, that the answer is "yes." We become what we feed ourselves. A generation that has been exposed to unprecedented levels of pornography and violence can't help but become inured to it and consequently suffer a diminution of their capacity to see others as persons, to feel what they feel, and to care about what happens to them.

We all reside on a spectrum whose poles are empathy and sociopathy. What we watch and read shifts that spectrum in one direction or the other. We don't remain static. Those on the empathetic side, if they feed themselves violence will shift to some degree toward the opposite pole, and those nearer the sociopathic pole, if they feed on violent movies and video games will be shifted even nearer to that pole.

Pornography, I'm convinced, works similarly, but our culture vehemently denies that either are harmful even as mass murders of children and the tragic fallout from sexually unhinged lifestyles fill our daily newspapers with accounts too sad to read. In my opinion, the culture is denying the obvious.