Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why Reading Literature Matters for Psychologists.

An article in the Washington Post today by Christopher Ingraham makes the point that there is a long slow decline of novel reading in this country. It argues that novel reading is important because it increases the empathy in its readers.  This is a belief I have shared with my psychology students for many years.

Gustavo Flaubert's novel about a doctor's wife who commits adulterous affairs then commits suicide to avoid the banalities of rural life is a story that teaches much about the way an individual life transpires in an environment that is both loveless and boring. I often suggested this and other writers as important for psychologists trying to learn how to piece together the life story of their patients. Getting a person's real life story is the essence of "diagnosis" which is an art best taught by artists.

Qualities of compassion and empathy are shaped in ways not easily taught better than under the microscope of the novelist. Whether Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky or Sylvia Plath, the complex nature of the human story is absorbed by the reader and built into their cognitive and emotional understanding.

The same argument applies to poetry which can teach skills and emotions valuable to a psychotherapist, physician, nurse or anyone whose life enriches others. But this form of teaching has to do with emotional growth at a subtle level, which is why many programs for physicians--not just psychiatrists--recommend a background in humanistic and artistic studies.

As a patient there is an immediate connection with a primary care doctor who projects empathy at an automatic and unconscious level. Humans are remarkably astute at recognizing genuine empathy vs machine-like behavior.

It seems plausible that increasing levels of strife and conflict at the national and world level may also reflect the decline of empathy.

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