Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Empathy - Where is your limit?


I'll start with a true story.

Once upon a time, many years ago, my husband offered to read our little boy a bedtime story. I fixed myself a cup of tea and settled down with a book of my own for a leisurely evening. Suddenly, the peace was shattered by an earsplitting scream. A tiny figure tore out of his bedroom and past my lounge chair with tears spilling down his cheeks, sobbing as if his heart would break. He didn't stop running.

A moment later his dad followed, saying, 'Logan, don't worry. Even though that emu died, Spindles makes lots of new friends. Just in the very next chapter, there are new bush critters and they stay alive for longer. Hey, come back!' 

That made the screams even louder. It was going to take hours of major settling down now, because our three-year-old son was a victim of empathy overload. I recognised the symptoms from some of my own run-ins with emotional stories. 


There have been several articles on the internet recently explaining how fiction readers tend to be more empathetic people than those who stick to non-fiction or don't read. You've no doubt come across a couple. I've figured out two main reasons to explain this.

1) Science shows that areas of the brain which correspond to action taking place in a story light up when we read. If the protagonist, Mike, runs for his life, it stimulates the area of our cortex which would be affected if we were actually running.

2) In novels, it's super-easy for us to experience stories through the characters' points of view, whether we're reading in first or third person. We can't help relating strongly to these people when our eyes are skimming over their very thoughts, as if they're taking place in our own heads.


Reading fiction definitely boosts our empathy muscles. There's no doubt about it. And that's a good thing, because it helps us to be more understanding and caring, less selfish and narcissistic. But do you think it's possible to get too much of a good thing? Just as gorging on too many apples can make a person sick, I've upset myself for weeks by indulging in novels which turn out to be too sad for me.

If a blurb hints at tragedy, grief, devastation or heartache, I've learned to proceed with caution. Sometimes it's wisest to just pass up the opportunity rather than put myself through it. Other readers have told me that they thrive on emotionally harrowing stories and memoirs, because they help them realise that their own lives are not too bad after all. We all have to know ourselves well enough to gauge what we can handle. For me, it goes far beyond a simple lesson in perspective. Although that works for some, the dose of medicine is often too strong for me.

Where do you stand on this? Is the HEA (happily ever after) a sign of naivety mainly used for escapism and fairy tales? Or is the tragic tale the vicious tool of operatic productions, arthouse theatre and grim writers who have a deep and meaningful statement to make?

Our little boy at the start of this blog post is about to turn 21 this week. He would probably deny the presence of his softer side, but even though he's become more expert at concealing his tendency to empathy overload, I know it's still in there somewhere.



Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, you may like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review where she also interviews other authors. 

17 comments:

  1. Hi Paula … I was only reading about this yesterday. Apparently literary fiction is the best for developing empathy and other such skills. The research revealed that literary fiction has far more developed characterisation and plot giving a reader greater appreciation of themselves. They're now encouraging such reading in executive coaching circles.

    Makes me want to grab a Dickens or Hardy novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ian,
      It's interesting research, isn't it? Students and readers of literary fiction have been increasing their ability to feel empathy all along, without knowing it. And since some of these classics are so thick, we get to stay with those characters for a very long time.

      Delete
    2. Maybe empathy overload explains why some of us prefer the "easier" genre fiction?

      Great post, Paula. Lots to think about . . .

      Delete
  2. Not sure where I stand on this, as you ask, Paula, except to say that I often find myself a little dissatisfied with obvious, unrealistic 'HEA' endings in novels, yet quite disturbed when things don't end happily! Just finished reading 'All That I Am' by Anna Funder and the darkness of that story (based on true events) was with me for days, kind of clouding how I felt about everything. Yet I'm glad I read it. I've found I can read the darker style of book, as long as I choose when I do this ie if I am needing some encouragement or have enough sadness around me already in real life, I steer clear! So, like you, I am careful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jo-Anne,
      I tend appreciate some disturbing plot developments at times, as long as a note of hope is left. Anything based on true stories, as you say, would definitely cloud my outlet for some time too. I've come across many unrealistic HEA endings, but what I dislike for more is the unrealistic tragic ending, which seems to be written just for the purpose of being dark. I've come across a few of those, but thankfully not many. I'm too careful.

      Delete
  3. Hi Paula - Great post and some interesting questions. I do like a happy ending (if not too pat) but I also will read harder, darker stories, especially if they make me think or reveal something about the world. My mirror neurons get good workouts but I can also take a step back when that's necessary - something I learnt in my years of being a doctor: I always made an effort to connect and empathesie but the feelings evoked needed to be put to one side on the drive home, if I wanted to stay sane (or to retain the ability to feel for my patients).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jenny,
      Thanks for feedback from a doctor's perspective. I can understand that taking that step back is necessary to keep functioning, and is something readers of stories can do too, to a lesser extent. I don't mind a bit of harder, darker content myself, but do like it to be written with an optimistic sort of world view, if not an actual HEA.

      Delete
  4. Thanks for sharing that research, Paula. I'm so glad to discover a little more of what makes me tick. :)I love surprises in a novel but not if I think hope is wanting. I want to make sure my characters come through that dark tunnel. That's one reason I did not enjoy Hemmingway's stories. We all need hope.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rita,
      I agree with you. Some of the school literature has stuck in my head for years, for its lack of hope. I'd add Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck to Hemingway. 'The Pearl' by Steinbeck, was one of our core texts, and stands out in my mind for starting with a feeling of contentment, peace and happiness, and ending really dark and horrible.

      Delete
  5. A wonderful post Paula. I also commented on 'The Vince Review' so I shall keep this brief. I love reading stories that are based upon fact, that bring my emotions to the surface - however I usually need a break between books. Happy endings are very much my thing, and if the ending isn't quite certain, it must shine with hope. I also love Hemmingway, John steinbeck, Thomas Hardy ... and of course Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jo'Anne,
      I've read many of those classic authors over the years, and find that I tend to be quite polarised in my opinions about them. I either love or hate the stories very, very much.
      Like you, happy endings work well for me.

      Delete
  6. I definitely have to be careful as I easily fall into empathy overload. I often have to remind myself when reading or viewing anything sad or tragic, this is their journey, not mine.

    I think fiction books without hope should be banned!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Susan,
      That's good advice, which another wise person gave me in the past. Sometimes a simple line is enough to help is keep things in perspective.
      'I think fiction books without hope should be banned!' I'd love to quote you on that some day :)

      Delete
  7. Hi Paula, thanks for your fascinating post. I've also experienced empathy overload, and I prefer HEA stories that provide hope. I also struggle to read stories written in first person if I'm not comfortable in the character's headspace. If someone dies during the story, especially if it's a child or an animal (pet), it can really affect me if I'm emotionally invested in the story. The same thing happens with movies, although I do think the empathy connection is much stronger with the written word.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Narelle, yes, tragedies involving those innocent child/pet characters get me every time! They tend to be hardest to get out of my head.

      Delete
  8. Reminds me of my son watching the movie The Blind Side a few nights ago. He took off at one point because he couldn't stand watching the part where the hero is homeless. Thankfully, all comes good and the movie has a great ending full of hope. I admit to being a feel-good story person. Happy with hardship and struggle, but I like an ending to be positive. There is so much to contend with in the world these days. A happy ending is a welcome change most times. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's funny when we watch the kids do that sort of thing. Lots of memories to mention to them when we get older. And I agree with you about the happy ending.

      Delete