Fictional Empathy

“There are house elves here?! Here, at Hogwarts?!

200For those of you who aren’t familiar with a certain British boy with big, round glasses and dark, messy hair, a house elf is a sort of little slave creature from the world of Harry Potter. As I compose this post, English actor Stephen Fry gracefully narrates the fourth adventure in the Harry Potter series to me, in which our main heroine, genius-witch Hermione Granger, takes up the cause of freeing the little slave creature house elves by creating an awareness group called SPEW (or, the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare).

So, basically, what I’m trying to say is, Hermione Granger is a Muggle (non-magic using person) born, genius witch, and she’s also an Everyday Ambassador.

I am a lover of stories.

I love to tell them, I love to hear them, I love to read them, and I love to write them (that’s probably implied when I say “I love to tell them,” but I like to be thorough). As I ride the train everyday, I can dive right in and pretend that I’m not shuffling to and from a menial retail job, but I am instead marveling at dragons (in Potter’s world or the Game of Thrones one, take your pick), exploring the murky world of depression with Sylvia Plath’s alter ego Esther Greenwood, or even sneaking around a shadowy corner with Niko, a World War II-era Soviet spy. I’m a sucker for dystopian novels, always set in the future and always a dismal reminder of the things that need to be changed in the present, and historical fictions that bring a time and place alive through the remarkable simplicity of words on a page.

A truly engrossing work of fiction can hypnotize and almost drug me, as I constantly think about the next opportunity I can get to flip it open. I sometimes try to read and walk down flights of stairs if the inconvenience of my train arriving at my station happens to interrupt a particularly captivating passage. In 2013, the science folks at Emory University set out to research this “life-changing” feeling a powerful work of fiction produces in readers. Not surprisingly, they discovered that not only is the language center of the brain affected by an enthralling work of fantasy, but fiction can also make us more empathetic.

When we imagine something happening, we can almost feel the emotions that would come along with it. Researchers tested this imagination effect on their subjects, feeding some of them 30-page chunks of the novel Pompeii, a story that follows a man living outside of the famously doomed city right before the tragic eruption that froze its people in time. Increased activity was seen in the central suclus, or the primary sensory regions of our big ol’ noggins. When we engage ourselves with a great story, we put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist, and in turn, we can feel the emotions of someone other than ourselves.

But this doesn’t apply to just any old story. Another study was conducted comparing famous literary fiction with popular lit, and the results were heavily slanted in favor of the literary fiction that presented deep, complicated, and layered characters. When comparing popular lit to classic lit, the researchers at the New School for Social Research had subjects read either one or the other, followed by an emotional recognition test based solely on the eyes. Those who read the literary fiction scored 10% higher than those reading popular literature.

And yet another study brings us back to little old Harry Potter and the effects Rowling’s charming book series has on its young, impressionable readers. The Journal of Applied Psychology looked at the results of different studies conducted around the famous children’s book series. One study tested children’s views on immigrants before and after reading, while another tested their views on those who identify as LBGT. The last study showed that those readers who did not emotionally identify with the villain, Voldemort He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had a more positive view of refugees.”In all three studies, the researchers credited the books with improving the readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups.” (Source: Science.Mic)

Empathy is a core value every card-carrying Everyday Ambassador should have in their arsenal. So here’s how we can accomplish a sort of digital re-tox, so to speak, as I release you back into the wild this weekend to find and absorb your next favorite work of fiction. It’s a great time to use your devices appropriately, whether you find an interesting short story while googling away on your phone, or you download a new e-book on your space-age tablet,

(*Disclaimer: Make sure not to let the story world become a distraction to your real-life interactions.*)

I personally recommend grabbing a physical copy, leaving you free to take a pen and mark away.

Find a story that completely transports you, disorients you, and leaves you craving, and/or demanding more. Sneak through dystopian futures, waltz into historical fictions, gallop your destrier into a mythical, moss-covered castle, but whatever you do

Go Forth and Read.



PS: Just in case you’re dying to get started, here are some quick, fictional stories from the Digital Detox archives, plus a list of recommended reading…

“Digital Detox” is a weekly series written by Victoria Freyre and edited by Elyana Twiggs. Every Friday, we explore different ways to disconnect, use the digital world responsibly, and rekindle human connection. To stay current with our latest posts,  follow #digitaldetox on our other platforms and check back regularly for updates.

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