Reading fiction can be a deeply absorbing experience. Readers commonly refer to the experience of being lost in a book (Nell, 1988
), or being transported to a different world (Gerrig, 1993
). However, relatively little attention has been paid to the mental processes associated with reading fiction, and how they relate to thoughts and behaviours in the real world. The current study examined the relationships among different aspects of fiction reading, i.e. life-time exposure to fictional stories and the immediate experience of being transported by a story, and two components of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the world from another person’s point of view and to infer beliefs and intentions, whereas affective empathy refers to the capacity to share another’s feelings and emotions (Blair, 2005
Much of fiction is concerned with protagonists’ understandings and misunderstandings of the beliefs and motives of other characters and is only comprehensible if the reader is exercising cognitive empathy (Lodge, 2002
; Zunshine, 2007). Affective empathy has also been proposed as an essential component of the understanding and enjoyment of fiction (Hogan, 2010
). Indeed, Hogan (2010
) has argued that literary representations of emotion may be ‘purer’ than those encountered in real-life, and thus have the power to enhance individuals’ affective empathic responses. In addition to the cognitive and affective empathy that is continuously exercised in ‘real-world’ social situations, it has been suggested that a separate component of empathy underlies the tendency to be transported by fictional stories and identify with their characters (Davis, 1980
). An interesting question therefore arises as to the relationships between real-world practices of cognitive and affective empathy, and the ability to be transported by reading fiction.
Reading fictional stories has been found to be associated with the development of empathy in children, suggesting that there is an important link between the empathy felt for fictional characters and the ability to empathise with people in reality (Adrian, Clemente, Villaneuva & Rieffe, 2005
; Aram & Aviram, 2009
; Mar, Tackett & Moore, 2010
). Harris (2000
) has suggested that there is continuity between children’s and adults’ engagement with fictional and real worlds. However, relatively few studies have examined the relationship between reading fiction and expressions of real-world empathy in adults.
In two studies by Mar and colleagues, college students were tested on lifetime prior exposure to fictional texts and measures of empathy. Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz and Peterson (2006
) found that the amount of fiction students had previously read predicted performance on a measure of empathy requiring participants to infer mental states from photographs of people’s eyes (the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ [RME] test; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste & Plumb, 2001
). The correlational design of this study meant that inferences could not be drawn in relation to the causal link between exposure to fiction and performance on the empathy related task. Thus, it is, as of yet, unclear as to whether fiction-reading was the cause of greater empathic ability, whether people high in empathy are more drawn to read fiction, or whether there was an alternative unidentified variable that explained the association. One alternative explanation, that individual differences in personality were causally related to both exposure to fiction and empathy, was eliminated by Mar, Oatley and Peterson (2009
). They found a positive relationship between exposure to fiction and ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ despite controlling for the Big 5 personality variable of ‘openness to experience’.
Mar et al. (2006
) did find a measure of social ability that was negatively associated with exposure to fiction: the Interpersonal Perception Task -15 (IPT-15; Costanzo & Archer, 1989
). This task measures the ability to decode social relationships represented in video clips using non-verbal cues, and was found by Costanzo and Archer (1989
) to be highly correlated with peer ratings of social skills. These results suggest that there may be a more complex relationship between reading fiction and empathy.
One possibility is that reading fiction has a stronger relationship with cognitive empathy, than with affective empathy. According to Lodge (2002
), a characteristic of literary fiction is that it is able to provide detailed moment-by-moment descriptions of the inner thoughts and feelings of its protagonists, thereby providing rich opportunities for readers to experience cognitive empathy. In contrast, other fictional forms such as plays and films can offer representations of the external behaviours of their characters, but are less suited to the representation of internal thoughts and feelings. Based on the findings of their research study, Mar and colleagues (2006
) suggested that an association between fiction-reading and cognitive empathy might explain why the RME measure positively correlated with exposure to fiction. They argued that the RME test is a measure of cognitive empathy insofar as it relies on matching a verbal descriptor to a depiction of a mental state, but does not necessarily require the participant to share the emotion concerned. The IPT-15, however, is more concerned with decoding embodied emotional cues and might therefore be taken as a measure of affective empathy, thus explaining why it was not associated with prior exposure to fiction. Thus, an aim of the present study was to test the hypothesis that prior exposure to the reading of fiction is positively associated with cognitive empathy abilities but not with affective empathy.
While the Mar et al. studies considered the relationships between prior exposure to fiction and empathy, other studies have examined empathic responses to specific fictional texts. One variable that has been found to affect the relationship between fiction-reading and empathy is termed ‘transportation’ (Johnson, 2012
). Using Green and Brock’s (2000
) Transportation Index (which measures the extent to which a reader has been absorbed by a story’s characters, plot and imagery) and the Affective Empathy Index (Batson, Early & Salvarani, 1997
), Johnson (2012
) found a positive relationship between affective empathy and transportation in college students. That is, participants who reported being absorbed in a story also subsequently reported higher levels of emotions that have been associated with affective empathy, such as warmth, compassion and sympathy. Furthermore, there was a positive relationship between the level of affective empathy and performance in a subsequent ‘real-world’ helping task in which participants were presented with an opportunity to help pick up some pens that had been ‘accidentally’ dropped by the researcher. This study was also correlational in design, meaning that no inferences could be drawn about a causal link between transportation and affective empathy. However, immediately prior to reading the story, baseline measures of trait tendencies to be transported by fiction and to feel affective empathy were taken. By controlling for these, Johnson was able to strongly suggest that there may be a direct link between reading-induced experiences of affective empathy and helping behaviour, unaccounted for by an underlying tendency to be easily transported or experience affective empathy.
In addition to this, Bal and Veltkamp (2013
) found that participants who were assigned to read a fictional story showed increased levels of affective empathy, but only when highly transported. Participants assigned to read a piece of non-fiction showed no increase in empathy. Both the Johnson (2012
) and Bal and Veltkamp (2013
) studies found associations between transportation and affective empathy, but did not specifically test for a relationship between transportation and cognitive empathy. Thus, an additional aim of the current study was to test for associations between transportation and both cognitive and affective empathy.
Considering the previous studies, it may be overly simplistic to propose a single relationship between reading fiction and empathy. Individual differences in reading fiction can be examined in relation to how much someone has read over their life-time, and also how transported they have been by a particular story. Furthermore, individual differences in empathy can be assessed in relation to both cognitive and affective empathy. The present study was thus designed to explore individual differences in life-time exposure to reading fiction, transportation, and cognitive and affective empathy. In line with Mar et al. (2006
) it was hypothesised that exposure to fiction would positively relate to cognitive empathy but not necessarily to affective empathy. Conversely, in line with Johnson (2012
) and Bal and Veltkamp (2013
) it was predicted that transportation by a piece of fiction would relate to levels of affective empathy and subsequent helping tendencies, but not necessarily to exposure to fiction or cognitive empathy.
Method (read the study at the link above)
comment: some semantic differences a bit connected to our language, and my (as a few friends – Susan – are a bit too well aware) borrowing terms but placing them as expressions of and for other models where they assume a different flavor.
Narrative, as I’m using it here, is inexorably tied to present expressed time and is singular. I’m fairly certain (of course it’s a speculation) its expression via language is tied to our inhibitory development (a small chunk up front and left is sort of specialized in that way and one thing that distinguishes our species.) Story – not plot – is by contrast not tied to the present and by its nature, plural, or having time-less alternative meaning, even conflicting. (Ie in the last sentence our language would embed story to fit narrative, so one should grammatically use ‘meanings’ with an s for the sentence narrative even though from the story perspective, its meaning or the meaning it wants to transmit, that would be mistaken.)
To make it as short: that distinguishing is important, likely I think, to in turn distinguish different expressions of empathy. This study uses existing models of two forms, called cognitive and affective. To me, that’s not enough. Both forms as described would actually utilize primarily affective (narrative) representations (networks of and in) of self in their expression. (Two large ones, brain networks, are broadly defined as default and central executive. The expression of these forms of empathy would in context be more closely tied with the later.) Mirror neurons if they exist (they very likely do) and many of the systems or networks they turbo-charge are at least also connected to emotively context-ed representations that are not so abstracted, that are not directly concerned with affecting. (These many networks are always dialoging, so it’s never an either/or. It emerges either/or only later hierarchically on the way to expression. You do have to eat. And fuck and love and sing and dance depending on motivation and context. Motivation, the necessity to do something, results in one-at-a-time something.)(Heavens, I left out drink.) It’s unlikely that there are very determinate tendential differences locally regarding nearly all modern languages. Mo’s gene’s are mixed like yours or mine or his mothers. Not that there might not be any tendential differences at all. But it’s more the other way around: language can and does affect us and him and her. And that voice they use delineates a slightly different discrete infinity in which embedding occurs, or the way information recursively integrates and is then expressed and received. As you note that voice uses elements of, actually is, poetry-music (for our brains they’re quite similar, overlapped, and different from verbal language per se. And time-less.)
As Paulette Paulette‘s example, story passes through narrative per force but the full impact of story is transmitted not so much by the narrative as by how much story avoids it, transmitting in other ways. Music-poetry reaches in without so much filter. But to engage more (directly those affective networks) and proceed, narrative is necessary, passing through an expressed real time. Fiction is more true than non-fiction in that way (using narrative but transmitting beyond it, accessing or impacting deeper, so to speak, and inherently more empathic networks. And there is a gender-modulated involvement here – recall Beth?) Later or tomorrow more but it’s time to make dinner. Sorry, asparagus ravioli with egg-yolk sauce. La pasta e la pasta.
…… (an italian comment, followed by english again)
Damasio e Damasio…era uno dei alternativi, Iowa, dove insegnavano, ahh, tempo fa. Ma passare altri inverni così, dove entri in un bar senza giacca ed esci 2 ore dopo in un freddo tale che già dopo il primo respiro sembra che qualcuno ti abbia infilato qualcosa piuttosto sgradevole sotto…tipo fatto di metallo gelido…eppure appuntita…senza preavviso…e poi ogni notte avere dei sogni invasi da granturco, e ancora granturco, e ancora granturco…e dove cacchio vai al allenare in bici in un posto dove basti che sali su un paio di libri spessi messi per terra per avere una panorama (come dice B. Bryson)? Comunque. Damasio Anto’, non arriabiarti ma un po’ si e messo 30 anni per… scoprire l’acqua calda. Forse sarà stato il trasferimento a California, forse dopo qualche tempo si e sentito un ‘clank’ in laboratorio. Si sarà girato, guardato per terra e sul pavimento avrà visto un oggetto di metallo, un po’ appuntito, tipo un martello ma non troppo grosso, avrà fatto una pausa e poi avrà detto a l’improvviso: ‘Ecco. Le emozioni contano. E non serve la corteccia cerebrale per essere cosciente, per sentire ed esprimere la vita. Basta che togli un martello dal culo per capirlo.’ Va be’, esagero. Sono stati essenziali, lui e lei (la moglie.)
A me la lingua usato più come mezzo che narrativa mi becca, e viceversa, da… sempre. Ma e piuttosto raro nella prosa, e sempre meno apprezzato. Salto alla musica, dov’e più facile capire. Jazz improvvisato, dov’e più paragonabile anche per le strutture che prende in prestito (molte le stesse della lingua) e per quei circuiti frontale che i musicisti devono inibire se davvero hanno bisogno di dire qualcosa allo, e dallo, stomaco, (empatia affettiva sarebbe chiamato qui.) Paragoniamo due estremi, Methany e Chet. Sia loro che coloro che li ascoltano hanno due tendenze diverse, il primo usa e raggiunge più la parte empatica cognitiva, il secondo affettiva (anche struggente).
One at a time…Damasio. Scusi per la mia cattiveria un po’ sul arrogante (non e personale. Sono i dati che contano). Erano tra i primi a raccogliere i dati specifici sufficienti per puntare allora alla modularita’ (e quanto le facolta’ di psicologia hanno resistito,) ed era forse per tutto quel lavoro paziente che si e messo un po’ per accettare l’ emergenza e dialoghi tra circuiti (e quanto resistano oggi le facoltà di medicina.) Oggi siamo un po’ oltre, penso, ovvero si riesce a vedere un po’ in la’ verso l’espressione modulato gerarchicamente di sistemi ricorsivamente integrati e delineati da tempi diversi e discreti, e emotivamente contestualizzati. Bleah. Comunque. Se definisce diversamente i termini non sarà un’aporia (sti’ cazzi di parole che usi…tocca’ piglia’ un dizionario.) Pero sarà insolubile, ovvero l’insicurezza mi sa bisognerà accettare, che per tanti non e neanche possibile. La pluralità di rappresentazioni e sistemi che integrano anche open-ended. (E per quello che fare quei video giochi – più o meno – costosi del cervello negli States e in Europa, dal punto di vista di modello/teoria…non ha moltissimo senso.)
Ah, si, poesia-musica, jazz. No non intendevo paragonare completamente jazz con i caratteri nel fiction. E solo che e più veloce e chiaro, mi sa. Penso che non devo spiegare l’idea, ah, a te. (Probabilmente dovrei usare più pronomi possessivi personali ma mi stonano.) Uso bottom-up e top-down in modo, perché per me il sapore e diverso, di Kandel e compagnie. Il primo riflette un’integrazione di informazione, – che inizia immediatamente, come finalmente si può misurare. Non ci sono veri quanti sensoriali – anche di rappresentazioni di se. Il secondo riflette la gerarchia necessaria verso l’espressione in tempo reale – che richiede l’astrazione e non permette alternativi, perciò e pieno di errori, funziona più con inibizione ed e relativamente priva di significanza. (perciò’ più laterale-frontale-dorsale, circuiti tipo CEN in cui la ricorsione e determinata più da rappresentazioni affettivi di se.) L’empatia, ovvero cos’e o come si esprime (dentro, più che fuori) e anche embodied cognition varia da persona a persona in base a come il loro dialogo tende a procedere, ovviamente. In te sarà molto diverso che in, diciamo Mario Draghi.
Povero Cartesio. Se avesse tolto ‘ergo cogito’ e lasciato ‘dubito’ allora sarebbe stato una frase con un sapore ben più ricco e con una prescienza notevole.
Altre cose, tipo che succederebbe se Chet suonasse con Methany, come cambierebbero i loro stesso espressioni, assieme una narrativa, loro delle storie, per dire…un’altra volta. Troppo lungo. Avrai da fare. Adesso anch’io. Ah..si, anche per me, a tutto le tue domande a parte l’ultimo, che presumo (al Max Planck e McGill) ma non sono sicuro. Casomai.
(Back to English)
…a longish after. The workout straightened my heart’s beat but, as often, once that negative-reinforcing turbo kicks in I let the movement run long, all the way into dinner, pausing to walk to the kitchen to put the potatoes on to boil (the puree made after accompanied de-boned quail wrapped around sage and butter and wrapped in turn by prosciutto slices.) There’s a difference between affective representations – abstracted things, identifying what an abstracted you can do with them and how – and integrated representations – what they mean or how they are connected without you doing anything. That’s why the terminology used in this study and elsewhere – affective vs cognitive empathy – can be a bit confounding. It mixes words sloppily, I think.
Affective empathy likely works relatively more on/with integrated representations with emotionally gated contexts. It affects a representation of you that isn’t so, in turn, affective. It’s effect is more bottom-up. It’s the butter within the quail integrating with the meat to make it moist. Not that cognitive empathy is so abstracted – it still involves embodiment, and it’s always a dialog in context. But it speaks relatively more to a you that is more abstracted, less emotionally or at least differently emotionally gated. It’s stuff you can in turn do stuff with, understand in a manipulative way as much as feel, stuff without as, or not transmitting so, many possibilities. The prosciutto on the outside whose fat will melt into the pan in which you can turn – optional -the quails. Part of your affecting to its context.
Taste. Flavor. We smell and taste…and feel, hear, see, etc. That input arrives, for the most part, into our awareness only after a lot of integration has already occurred. So flavor is very much formed as much as what we are, by the receiver, as itself. Of course, though for some reason many had been and some are still trying to reduce input into ‘qualia’, (not quails, which are, ah, real – before you put them in your mouth and after.) An excess of Sp2 receptors is sort of a condemnation. Likely deriving for the obvious survival benefits, (bitterness. I suppose, as in theorize, that a relative high concentration in your mouth often if not usually corresponds to high concentrations below. When your guts taste bitterness, they transmit a signal to, well, flush by adding water, getting rid of the potentially harmful bitter stuff by getting it out quicker and avoiding at least some intestinal absorption,) they and others also talk to your brain and mind bottom-up, influencing in a stratified way, directly and indirectly. But you’re not aware of it.
Where was I? Flavor. Stuff. Meaning. Has to a relative aspect, a relation. Bottom-up will tend to create meaning that is less related to any affective you. Not the one that meanders, daydreams.
Take the opposite extreme, in a sense, of someone autistic. Someone who has no or relatively little filter from integrated stuff into what that affective person is supposed to do with it. No inhibition, in that way. Always in the present, rather the expression. No alternatives allowed, breakfast cereal – only that kind, only that milk, only at that hour, then we do that activity – only that activity, only in that order. You’d expect a part of their brain, that part that deals with affecting, to be relatively muscular, and a smaller part that deals with integration, with maintaining relations and alternative meanings outside of time. And they do, even on a neuronal basis. (The study just out, if you take the time to read the results, actually confirms larger ventricular -assume right 4th- and specific wall thickening, moreover it doesn’t distinguish age groups -development here is key – severity of symptoms, even excludes severe head movement (image resolution. Worse obviously in severe patients,) includes asberger’s – for me that shouldn’t be included – ecc.) Anyway, to taste receptors, a little bit.
Genes are an odd thing. Rather, the difference between the way we usually model them, vs their function. Even Darwin, and the sort of lacking in Origin Of Species which, a bit implicitly, already begins to be addressed in Descent Of Man – actually perhaps a more important book. They don’t give a crap about us, our genes. We’re merely part of a side-effect, useful expressions, transporting information of much larger integrated systems through time or into this present eternal. Part of a slow dialog between those systems and their context(s). The world, which would be our world….Representations.
Ie: I’m not a fully aware synesthesiac. Still, many things have a sort of flavor to me – but a bit farther up. That is, integrated material delivers a taste, has a taste – only of different kinds of bitterness and harmony, is the only way I can describe it, not flavor as such. But when an integrated model moves easily, correctly, it is accompanied by an harmonious, pleasant bitterness. If it has a tasted sweetness it’s no good, something is wrong with the model. There’s a contrast that still has to be resolved. Note, I’m an odd bloke effectively, so that flavor in me is mixed into something that isn’t affective, a sort of thing that usually most people aren’t at all aware of. And given consistency and history, I likely have an excess of Sp2 receptors from my palate on down. And this is staying away from even more obvious stuff like serotinin levels.
The idea is that those enteric (gut) neurons play a role both in representing the world and our selves to our selves before abstraction, relatively, and communicate with a system that is very large, i.e. that likely includes stuff like all that bacteria we carry – which are probably more determinate genetically in the system than we, abstracted, are. Certainly larger than our selves alone. Anyway. Full stomachs. Irregular heart beats. Interaction of systems. Different representations of self. Different contexts. Different expressions of time. And quails.