I’ve been reading about the correlation between reading fiction and having empathy. The correlation has been established for a long time. And, of course, the correlation between empathy and good health is known as well.
However the initial studies mostly confirmed the obvious: people who like to read fiction are women (they buy 80% of fiction in the US) and women are more empathetic than men. More recent studies show that no matter how low a person scores on the empathy scale, reading fiction will increase empathy.
It’s fascinating that most recent studies narrow the reading-empathy correlation to fictional narrative. So first of all, this means mysteries and science fiction don’t count. The reason is that you follow those narratives to play a game and solve a puzzle.
Of course there are character-driven examples of both genres, but the characters don’t have to be nearly as strong. (For you English majors, compare the depth of character development of Ender, or Miss Marple vs. Hester Prym.) In genre fiction you continue reading to understand the world around the character as opposed to understanding the emotions around the character.
While I’m dumping on the history of storytelling, I will add that fussy French existentialists, and heavy handed Russian Guglagists also do not provide the empathy boost. They write fiction to make a philosophical or political point, and the author does not rely on emotional development to pull the reader through the story, but rather the drive to gain an intellectual grasp of the concept.
What we’re left with are the books that are famous for the memorable character development. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and all those yummy beach reads on the bestsellers list. Those are great for kids to read if you want to increase their emotional intelligence.
When it comes to reading fictional narrative to build empathy, lots of books don’t count, but lots of movies do. That’s right. If you want your kids to get the emotional benefits of reading, they’re better off watching Saving Private Ryan than reading Percy Jackson. Another way to think about it: the term chick flick probably signals a movie that develops emotional empathy.
The best list, by far, of character-driven movies, is the Oscar nominations for best actor/actress and best supporting actor/actress. No one knows better than the Academy which movies requires the most intense acting to convey an emotionally complex character.
Also, good news, it doesn’t matter that kids (and adults!) forget most of what we read and see in movies because people still get the benefits of increased empathy from following the characters through the story.
So, once again, school is focused on all the wrong stuff: and as long as you follow the story while it unfolds, retaining the plot is unnecessary, and passing the test is irrelevant. Kids cultivate their own empathy by following to end of the story and caring about the character.
I was going to write about how relived I am that TV and movies count as much as reading does. But actually, my kids watch the kind of TV that doesn’t count. Brooklyn 99 is funny, but it’s like one of those series of books with 99 titles. Nothing ever happens that’s really new, it’s just the same characters doing similar stuff every show. And we watch Rick and Morty, which falls squarely in the sci-fi realm.
But last week we saw the movie Eight Grade, and it was incredible. For one thing, you can actually watch your kids growing their empathy when they squirm in their sets and laugh with relief at the plight of the main character, (played by Elsie Fisher, who was an eight grader until last week when she announced she will start homescooling). The movie theater was packed with kids who screamed “Don’t do it!” at the screen, and I think every single parent in the theater cried when the dad gave his speech about why he puts up with his teenaged daughter.
What I really loved was the aesthetic. The movie had two things going on visually at all times often scrolling on a second screen. The director (and famous YouTuber) said most movies have fake screens when they show a computer or phone. But he wanted the movie to have a permeating genuine blue-screen glow. So for the movie they made real social media accounts, real email validation, and real selfies. and then hired people who were off-screen to text with the lead character in real time, so everything looked authentic.
The Internet was like a character in the movie, and I think I loved that most of all Though maybe that means I need more experience engaging with character-driven fiction…