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Empathy at work: Empathy and reading and writing.

A research seminar at Bath Spa University, chaired by Maggie Gee (who also spoke at the Past, Present, and Future of Reading panel I attended last year) and with speakers Professor Bambo Soyinka, Emma Geen, Dr Alison Lee and Dr Omar Al Khayatt, was where I found myself last Wednesday evening. 

Together this panel, who I believe included members of Bath Spa Universities Empathy and Writing Group, created an utterly fascinating discussion about the work of empathy and the way that writing and reading – my favourite pastime – can help to improve it. Drawing on a seminal paper, published in 2013, which ascertained that reading literary fiction could improve ‘Theory of mind’, this lecture included perspectives from a Neuroscientist, a Doctor and writer, a novelist, and a director of interactive narrative.

The panel began with a historical recounting by Emma Geen of the work of Violet Piaget (a pseudonym for Vernon Lee), and her assistance in popularising the German word for empathy: Einfühlung. She noticed that both herself and her lover, Kit Anstruther-Thomson had different bodily reactions to various pieces of artwork. Thus leading them to think about empathic embodiment; the idea of ‘feeling into’ which sounds strikingly similar to what occurs when an author, for example, creates a new character, or a reader reads about that character. In fact, the extent of this can be so great that – and here I borrow the example given during this portion of the evening – when we look at an illustration of someone throwing a ball the same motor activities can be awoken in the brain, and we can ‘feel’ the action.

Emma then passed the microphone to Dr Alison Lee who continued the discussion by taking us on a journey into the brain, or more specifically the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Salient Network. Here, would be a good time to provide a caveat: I find psychology really interesting but I am not a psychologist and science can sometimes go over the top of my head. I think I have a fairly clear idea of what was said, but I may not be 100% accurate. The DMN is where we go when we are doing nothing, it’s the place we go when we are living inside our heads. It’s unique to us and able to change based on experiences and feelings. The salient Network allows us to come out of the  DMN when something engaging occurs in our environment: someone calling our name for example. However, it is the Insula System that is most predominantly based on the feeling of empathy. It is this system which allows us to switch between internal (DMN) to external, and you cannot be empathetic when looking inwardly. 1st person literature has been recorded as triggering this system, most likely because it has also been shown that we are most likely to empathise with individuals who are like us; the use of ‘I’, ‘we’ and so on makes us feel more involved in the story.

What I found most interesting about this section of the panel, and incredibly useful for my dissertation (YAY!) was the idea that empathy could be taught. And that whilst the DMN is useful – it allows for down time and reflection – empathy and the ability to look externally is also crucial. In fact, remaining internally looking for too long can become an unhealthy behaviour.

Professor Soyinka then drew on her experiences of empathy, which she uses to understand those who are profoundly different from herself. Using the example of her interactive theatre piece about Romance Scammers, she argued that whilst empathy can be good it can also be dangerous, after all, it is just part of a system. These scammers, who get to know their victims, empathise with them and use that to develop a relationship so that later they can ask for money, use their ability to empathise so that the individual being targetted feels safe and is more likely to provide the cash. There is also a reliance on the victim feeling empathetic, feeling sorry for this too-good-to-be-true person they have met and wanting to help.

Lastly, Omar Al Khayatt spoke about empathy from a doctor’s perspective. How should empathy be acted upon professionally and in a useful way? Can the empathy and communication classes taught during medical school be effective, to what degree? Somewhat frustrated by the robotic and prescribed manner by which the best way to interact with patients was being taught (Ideas, Concerns, Expectations) he turned to literature, finding literary expression a very useful empathetic tool. Surely reading Plath’s experiences of Insomnia were far better than a medicalised textbook? – You could really feel what she was feeling – (Thank you! This definitely helps with the dissertation). A writer as well as a doctor, it was intriguing to hear his feelings about which part of his life, his day job, or his night job, inspired which, and whether empathy was a research tool. Whilst he claims that it was  – ‘Perception is creation’ – Oliver Sachs – he also warned of burnout among doctors and that reflection can become a form of torture, very similar to the idea of compassion fatigue which was mentioned in the Q&A session.

I want to thank everyone who made the panel possible. While I don’t believe I have done it justice in this, I am sure, rather rambly post it really was fascinating. I learnt a lot, gained a lot and, on top of that, it has given me another (and much needed) burst of enthusiasm for my dissertation.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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