Reading With Meaning

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A quick turn of the page, the next words read through tear blurred eyes. One book can change everything. A simple story written by a small author can be worth a thousand lifetimes.

Reading can change people’s lives, and according to research, may change empathetic functions of your brain as well.

According to PhD Candidate David Kidd, reading enhances empathy. “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” said Kidd.

Kidd’s research suggests that people who read literary fiction consistently score higher on a test to understand human emotions. The people who read non-fiction score much lower.

Psych Central author Rick Nauert PHD tells us that children who read books are more likely to imitate the emotions/behavior of the characters in the books. “A recent study in March highlights shows that reading a child a tale about honesty led the child to act more honestly when presented with an opportunity to lie or cheat.”

Both Psychology experts agree that reading is largely to thank for the development of empathy and other such emotions. Reading is important in helping children develop the mentality of a kind, loving adult.

Junior Alanna Haslam says the most influential book in her life has been  “ the Bible! It is jam-packed full of amazing and encouraging words that remind me that I am never alone. Its purpose is to change my life and it does so on a daily basis.”

Alanna also uses reading as a relaxation method. She finds that it is extremely effective in her life. “When reading, if it’s a good book, I am able to forget fear, anxiety, and sadness that is happening in my life, and listen to the life or story of someone else. I think that it is a good lesson: to listen more quickly than you speak.”

She finds that even Fantasy can help to guide her in operating more thoughtfully in the real world. Her second favorite book is Harry Potter, and like many American kids, she spent her childhood immersed in this magical world.

Both the Bible and Harry Potter reinforce to Haslam that there is still good in the world. “Though horrible things do happen, awesome people who are constantly wrestling with brilliant world-changing ideas are out there… Ultimately I think that the experience of reading opens a person up to new ideas and views of the world which on one hand can be overwhelming or even disturbing but on the other hand can really encourage the reader to pursue life with perseverance and resilience!”

Others found that reading allowed them to see things about life that they didn’t realize before.

Sophomore Phoebe Gariepy was most moved by Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. She describes it as an adventure story, which also explores spiritual ideas that are rooted in ancient Eastern Traditions and New Age spirituality. She believes the novel  has insights into how to lead a more fulfilling and happy life. “It made me realize that the energy between humans is real and that how we interact with each other is very important.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small UCLA professor of psychiatry and aging, who has also studied adolescent brains, believes that teens who are on the internet more and reading and communicating directly less,  may not be learning empathy skills. According to Small, “The digital world has rewired teen brains and made them less able to recognize and share feelings of happiness, sadness or anger.”

Sophomore English teacher Ms. Hefler has seen a noticeable difference between those who read on their own and those who don’t. “In regards to what I have noticed in my own students over the years, those students who read on their own outside of school are generally better able to analyze the literature we read in class — including analyzing characters’ motivations and complex themes (prejudice, injustice, sin vs. redemption, convention vs. individuality, etc.) that connect to the human condition in this world/society we live in. What I have observed is that students who excel in this ability to deeply analyze literature (these same students usually read quite a lot outside of school) also tend to be more empathic; they are better able to ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of characters and other people and it is easier for them to see situations from perspectives other than their own. Of course, I have no data on this, it’s just a personal observation.”

Reading enhancing empathy isn’t a new concept. However, it is an idea that is not very widely known. It’s no wonder our previous generations read for pleasure, it allowed them to be more connected to those around them. We live in a world that’s all about connection, yet our emotional connections to others are falling below two bars. How long until we’re at no service?

Living in this world where people cease to care for others needs, maybe all we need for a reboot is for more people to start reading novels. Who knows, maybe having more readers might help to stop some of our biggest problems, world hunger, war, strife? Maybe the solution has been sitting on the shelf all along.

Zachary Vandermeer
Zachary Vandermeer

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Educating students for more than 200 years.