From my article “Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)“:
A study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory. found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.
In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.
For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys.
To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.
This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.
One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.
Those who follow my blog know that I go through stages of posting about different subjects. Last year I wrote a lot about gratitude and positive thinking. Then I began posting about mindfulness. Recently I’m writing about the role struggle plays in the Christian life. These three themes are actually all related. Here’s why.
To develop the skill of gratitude, you need to practice mindfulness/watchfulness to retrain your brain to move from the negative to the positive, from anxiety to peace. But in order to get really good at mindfulness, you need to struggle. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, let alone gratitude and mindfulness. In my article ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice’ I outlined six specific ways a person can struggle to become more positive and at peace. I’d like to take the opportunity now to expand on this and give a specific exercises you can do to become more mindful, more grateful and more at peace with yourself and the world.
But before I begin, I just want to say one more time: gratitude and inner-peace are not gifts. That is, they aren’t personality traits that you’ve either been given or deprived of. Rather, gratitude and inner-peace are skills that can be developed with practice. Today I’m going to explain how you can begin practicing these skills right now. The exercise I’m going to present only takes 10 minutes each day, yet it has the potential to transform your life.
For over a decade I’ve worked as a freelance writer for a variety of publications. Now that I’ve reached midlife and look back over my career, the three themes that stand out as being the most significant are (1) gratitude (2) attentiveness (3) being human.
I am hoping to pull together some of my writings on these topics and self-publish them in a book of essays. In addition to organizing my past writings for this book, I will also conduct fresh research for some new essays on these important topics.
In order to make this project a reality, I need significant funding. Quite simply, the more funds I’m able to raise, the more time I’ll be able to afford to work on this project. If I’m successful in raising the amount of money required, Kickstart will release the funds to me after a 45-day campaign. However, if I fall short of raising the necessary funds, all the money will be returned to the contributors. Kickstart has the mechanisms on their website for facilitating these transfers with financial accountability.
If you would like to be involved in helping to support this project, here are some things you can do:
- Visit my Kickstart campaign and consider pledging $20 or more.
- During the next 45 days, periodically visit my personal Facebook page and my public fan page and whenever I post something about this project, click “like” and “share.”
- If you have been blessed by my writings, then please write a few sentences on your Facebook page saying something positive about my work and including a link to my Kickstart campaign.
- Repeat step #3 at least four times during the next 45 days.
Thank you for your support!
Click on the following link to go to the webpage for my Kickstart campaign:
Being Grateful, Being Attentive, Being Human
I began this series in 2013 after reading Steve Wasserman’s comments in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of newspapers across the country, the erosion of book reading following the rise of the internet, and the shocking lack of coverage this crisis is receiving in the national media. I quoted Wasserman’s observation that “the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”
From ‘Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)’:
Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.
Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.
Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”
Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”