then imagining what it would feel like.
I recently read a nonfiction book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton. I hadn’t even gotten past the preface when I started to think I was in trouble. The line that made me pause was this:
“…people with two copies of a particular single-letter DNA variation in a gene called neuregulin 1, a variation that has been previously linked to psychosis – as well as poor memory and sensitivity to criticism – tend to score significantly higher on measures of creativity compared with individuals who have one or no copy of the variation.
My brain screamed, Wait! Then I backtracked and picked out the words. This gene is linked to psychosis, as well as creativity, poor memory, and sensitivity to criticism. All the voices in my head mean I’m either crazy or creative. My memory is horrible, and my husband always complains that I’m overly sensitive. So is this research saying I’m also psychotic?
I took the psychopath test on the book’s website and scored an 8 out of 33, which is “low” on the psychopath scale. Fortunately, I’m not psychotic; I’m just a writer.
With the health of my psyche safely vindicated, I continued on through the book. Aside from the fascinating information on the psychopathic mind, I found something truly scary – at least to me. Empathy is on the decline. According to one recent study:
College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of twenty or thirty years ago.
40 percent is a whole lot less empathy.
While the words empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, they actually have a subtle but very different meaning. When you sympathize, you feel sorry for someone else’s situation. The feeling is slightly removed emotionally. It’s more of an intellectual experience.
To empathize means you understand and share a feeling. When you empathize with people, you’re able to put yourself in their place and imagine what they’re feeling.
I began to wonder about this decline in empathy. What does it mean to our children, and to society? And, since one of the hallmarks of psychopaths is that they do not (or cannot) empathize, are we now building an entire culture of psychopaths?
The author doesn’t explore this possible link of the growing numbers of psychopaths and the declining number of empaths, but he does question the reasons for the decline. One of the major contributors is quite likely the large amount of time our kids spend on the Internet. Social media is a casual connection. We can sympathize with our Facebook friends, but most people don’t spend enough time or have enough personal connection to empathize. This, in itself, wouldn’t be so bad if our Internet time didn’t often come at the expense of what would have been our reading time. Apparently, kids aren’t doing much reading these days. And reading builds empathy.
Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to lead researcher Nicole Speer.
As a writer, I find empathy to be my most important tool. I don’t just imagine a character doing something, then write about it. I fully immerse myself in that character’s emotional state. When I write about what he/she is doing, I’m also feeling it. I’m right there in the moment. I feel the joy and the anger, the pleasure and the visceral hatred. Because the emotions feel real to me, so do the characters. And I like to think this comes across to my readers.
In my opinion, empathy is vital to good fiction writing.
I’ve read some books by authors who have a great story line, but the characters lack something. They feel more like chess pieces going through the motions to advance the plot. I understood this was a problem with character development, but I never really made the connection to the author’s ability to empathize – or lack thereof. I know the issue is sometimes a different focus; the author’s writing approach is more plot-driven than character-driven. Now, though, I wonder how many of those authors simply are not capable of standing in their character’s shoes.
Of course, the quality of fiction is far from our biggest problem. If our upcoming generations are not able to, even briefly, put themselves in someone else’s position and imagine what it feels like, how can we expect them to be motivated enough to help change things? Isn’t the ability to empathize often the driving factor in social change?
Back to our kids and their lack of interest in books. The following information is from a 2011 survey by the National Literacy Trust in the U.K.:
- 1 in 3 children between the ages of 11 and 16 do not own a book.
- Almost one-fifth of the 18,000 children polled said they had never received a book as a present, and 12% said they had never been to a bookshop.
I don’t know what any of this means to the future of humanity. Maybe I’m filling in too much between the lines. I’ve been known to do that a time or two. But if reading builds empathy, and both reading and empathy are on a fast decline, it seems obvious that we need to get our kids to read more. It sure wouldn’t hurt, right? So buy a kid in your life a book. Or, even better, unplug a child from the computer and take him/her to a bookstore or the library. Then ask about the emotions the characters felt, and see if the child is able to identify in a way that show empathy.
By the way, if you’re curious about your own psychopath score, you can take the quick test on Kevin Dutton’s website: www.wisdomofpsychopaths.com
Thanks for reading.
Tags: building empathy, Character Building in Fiction, Decline In Empathy, Decline in Kids Reading, Empathizing With Characters, Kevin Dutton, Kids Reading Less, Psychopath Tests, Psychopath Traits, Reading and Empathy, Reading To Build Empathy, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Writing and Empathy