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Friday
Apr132012

Lost in a good book

Here's a question: how do you become a better communicator, learn to pick up on non-verbal cues more effectively and take a low-cost vacation? Pick up a work of fiction!

Earlier this year I indulged in a flurry of novel reading activity. I found myself zipping through imaginative worlds that closely mirror my own reality. Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding, and Helen Schulmans's This Beautiful Life described lives lived in places and situations that were not too much of a stretch for me. Conquistodora by Esmerelda Santiago and Suzanne Collin's ubiquitous The Hunger Games set me down in places I can only imagine and led me on adventures I will certainly never have. But as I mentally traveled back in time to 19th century Puerto Rico and forward to the dystopic Panem, I experienced foreign worlds conjured by authors who literally took me with them.

You may call it escapism, but it's more than that. Science now tells us that when we spend hours in a world far, far away, we are actually doing something very valuable; sharpening our empathy skills. In "Your Brain on Fiction" in the New York Times last month, Anna Murphy Paul describes research suggesting novel readers benefit from this activity more than we know. Findings by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, point to "substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others."

So I ache for Henry Skrimshander as he loses his gift for fielding and turns his back on baseball, his one true love. I get frustrated with Liz Bergamot and want to scream at her to stop being such a passive bystander in her own life. It is almost as if I were experiencing their pain myself, rather than observing it. And it is this experience, vicarious though it may be, that makes me a better communications coach, teacher, artist, wife and mother. I live in a very self-contained corner of the world, but by walking in a fictional character's shoes, I can go anywhere, be anyone. Which helps me develop greater empathy.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto summed it up: “Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. . . . novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So next time you want to unplug, close the door and indulge in a good novel - go ahead: you'll be a better person for it!

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