Why changing reading habits could spell the end of empathy

The way we read is changing. Could this affect our ability to empathise?

Reading used to be something done with care and dedication, and over long periods. Now, if it happens at all, it is more likely to happen briefly, and with a ruthless eye for relevance.

We used to get married to the things we read; now, we have one night stands.

So what?, I hear you saying. Yes, some people lament the decline of old-style reading: hence the chorus of disapproval greeting the report of the International Literacy Study, released last week. Saner voices see that “youth literacy isn’t actually decreasing; it’s just moving into arenas that the fogeys don’t know about or understand”.

But what if the changing reading habits also changed the way we thought about liberty, equality and fraternity: our most fundamental mental concepts?

Reading historian Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, such a possibility doesn’t seem that remote.

According to Hunt, it was only in the eighteenth century that empathy found its fullest expression. It did so because of the novel.

“Novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings”, Hunt writes. “In this way, reading novels created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative. Can it be coincidental that the three greatest novels of psychological identification of the eighteenth century – Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Rousseau’s Julie (1761) – were all published in the period that immediately preceded the appearance of the concept of the “rights of man”?”

For Hunt, this development was not merely conceptual. It was also neurological. For her, people’s brain chemistry was literally altered by their literary encounters.

As David Bell says in the LRB (who don’t get a link, because they make you pay), “modern readers of Julie and Pamela may find it surprising that these novels could induce any physical effects beside a narcotic one”. But Hunt’s claim is really quite plausible – and she cites recent research in cognitive science to justify it.

Hunt’s thesis makes you wonder what the neurological effects of our current reading patterns might be. Here, as a first stab, are my predictions:

a) Judgement is swifter – less Blake, more Blink.

b) Empathy decreases. People will be less likely to take the time to involve themselves in fiction’s emotional depths, so they won’t have the profound empathetic experiences of the eighteenth century. See also fragmentation of culture (pdf).

c) Craving for highs and lows increases. Like addictions of all kinds – sugar, drugs, gambling – the thirst for instant gratification creates its own internal dynamics. Just as black and white no longer grabs the attention, soon, neither will anything long and complex. The brain will become less stable, less able to resist pangs.

d) The brain may become more plastic, more able to respond to rapidly changing circumstance.

e) Horizons will be shorter. So the intertemporal problems I posted on last week will only get worse.

If this is true, then the future does not bode well for human rights. If empathy decreases, and people are more concerned with satisfying their greedy, temperamental brains, then there is no reason to think that they will be able to make the cognitive jumps necessary when thinking about rights. (Although whether this is still necessary is open to debate).

It’s all conjecture: your guess is as good as mine. So let me know your thoughts – if you have the attention span, that is.


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