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Empathy—identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives—seems to be in dangerously short supply these days, especially among teens and young adults. One recent study, for example, showed a 40 percent decline in empathy among college-age students. “I call it the Selfie Syndrome,” educational psychologist Michele Borba declares. She goes on to say, “Thanks in part to the rise of social media, today’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever; one study estimates narcissism rates among college students are up 58 percent versus three decades ago.” Eek! “And this has given rise,” she concludes, “to a culture of bullying, cheating, and unhappiness.”
She’ll get no argument from me, but she might get one about her laying the cause for this decline in empathy at social media’s door. Another recent study—this one conducted by California psychology professor Larry D. Rosen—found that being on the internet “does not displace face-to-face time nor reduce real-world empathy” and that “virtual empathy [is] positively correlated with real world empathy.” Clearly, there is no consensus about the causes of empathy’s decline, but there seems to be no argument that some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others—for instance, powerful people! A recent experiment reported in the New York Times found that even people temporarily assigned to high-power roles showed brain activity consistent with lower empathy. This would be discouraging if, happily, it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Former President Clinton, for example, the most powerful man in the world when he was in the White House, was famous for saying “I feel your pain,” and would, some wag said, cry at the grand opening of a car wash.
But perhaps he is an anomaly. If the general rule about power actually is true, does it mean that the less power you have, the more empathetic you are? Beats me. All I know is that an absence of empathy or an empathy deficit impacts every aspect of our lives but is arguably most visibly present in an unfortunate tendency to demonize or ostracize anyone perceived as being “the other.” This may include those of a different sexual orientation, a different religion, a different place of national origin, a different race or ethnicity, and, well, the list goes on. In many of these cases, indifference, fear, anger, or even—in extreme examples—hatred trump empathy and compassion. Sometimes this shows itself in the current epidemic of bullying, but a failure of empathy is manifested in far more than bullying and, in another context, hazing (an East Coast university recently banned a fraternity for its hazing of a young pledge, resulting in his death); it is also apparent, for example, in teens’ shunning, treating as invisible, or failing to understand “the other,” a problem that is growing as our culture becomes ever more diverse.
Some recent scientific studies suggest that young adults’ brains are not wired for empathy. Although this seems to be an oversimplification, it is true that we now know that the prefrontal cortex is often not developed until age 25. And this is the region of the brain that governs impulse control and judgment and where cognitive empathy originates! Nevertheless, other studies powerfully conclude that empathy is not physiological but, instead, something that can actually be chosen and learned.
If that is true, one sovereign way to learn empathy is surely through the reading of books. One of the greatest gifts that literature can give its readers is the experience of empathy and sympathy, for books can take readers into the interior lives of characters, showing not only what is happening to them but also dramatically conveying how what is happening feels. The heart has its reasons the mind cannot know, which means we come to understanding others not only through our head but also through our heart, and it is fiction that offers us essential opportunities for cultivating empathy, for feeling sympathy, and for experiencing emotional engagement with others. Happily, this is currently a hot-button issue, one we can hope will foster more of these essential books.
And it seems to me that we are seeing more books inviting empathy. Seen in last month’s column, the first 5 titles on my annual list of best books all inspire empathy. And a cursory count reveals 13 others—books I would suggest, like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, the story of the unprovoked police shooting of a poor black teenager, or Atia Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, the powerful story of a family of Syrian refugees. Then there’s Fred Aceves’ The Closest I’ve Come, about a Latino teen facing a seeming surfeit of problems; and there’s Arvin Ahmadi’s Down and Across, which is about an Iranian American teenage boy. And, well, stories about a whole host of kids representing a rainbow of differences, whether racial (Gloria Chao’s American Panda) or ethnic (Erika L. Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), or whether the stories concern those who are differently abled (Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder) or suffer from autism or OCD (Michael Currinder’s Running Full Tilt and John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down), or teens dealing with body-image issues. Then there are the homeless (Janel Kolby’s Winterfolk), the impoverished (M. T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand), those who are LGBTQIA+ (Patrick Ness’ Release), and more.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank the organization We Need Diverse Books for focusing our attention on this matter and, I venture to say, being responsible at least in part for what seems to me to be an uptick in the number of multicultural books being published, books that seem tailor-made to inspire and foster empathy. May they inspire all of us to chorus “I feel your pain” and to demonstrate it by our behavior.
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