…but there’s an article in the Guardian about how a study has been conducted that suggests that reading fiction increases people’s empathic abilities.
Published by the journal Psychological Science, the study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And “belonging” to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. “The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment,” Gabriel and Young write.
People think of acting as an extrovert’s domain: it’s about getting in front of people and doing stuff that would scare ordinary mortals. And there is truth to that. But it is simultaneously, perhaps uniquely so, an introvert’s domain: the actor has to be able to connect with characters and understand their priorities and the way that the things they do arise out of those priorities. They need to see how their own impulses are analogous to those of the character. And there is just no way that reading doesn’t strengthen those muscles.
“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world,” said Oatley. “The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. We can think about it in terms of the psychological concept of expertise. If I read fiction, this kind of social thinking is what I get better at. If I read genetics or astronomy, I get more expert at genetics or astronomy. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have. And it turns out that psychologically there is a big difference between these two points of view. We usually take the exterior view of others, but that’s too limited.”
However, there is another way in which reading is essential for the actor. Yes, reading fiction can help us forge the empathic bonds we need to be able to forge more readily and skillfully by teaching us about different kinds of people in the world. However, as fictions (and nonfictions for that matter) are composed of sentences, and the sentence is the currency of the actor’s economy, as I have argued previously, reading also helps us in that we develop more intimate acquaintance with sentences and how they work, how they serve as attempts to formulate the self and its priorities from moment to moment.
For actors, if not for everyone else, reading truly is fundamental.
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