An unexpected and contradictory intersection between reading and empathy

This timing of this post arrives when two areas of thinking I’ve informally explored over the past few years are intersecting in unexpected and contradictory ways.

Part of the intersection occurred in October, when I attended a session by Dr. John Feland at The Nueva School’s 2019 Innovative Learning Conference titled, “Stumbling Toward Empathy; Lessons Learned in Building Cognitive Empathy in the Unmyelinated Teenage Frontal Cortex”. The research Dr. Feland shared revealed that teenagers are actually unable to empathize, as this requires a fully developed frontal cortex, which we now know does not occur until one’s early 20s. In fact, Feland further explained, when we expose teenagers to media intended to evoke an empathic response, the opposite can occur – these kinds of experiences can trigger distress in teenagers (Feland, 2019).

I made an immediate connection to the loud, collective voice from within the reading community of which I consider myself a participating member. We often speak of the power of reading, specifically that done by the pre-teen and teenagers I work with every day, to evoke empathy. I’ve come across this incantation, and uttered it myself many times. Most recently, I read it in Maryanne Wolf’s (2018) Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Wolf’s primary concern is that readers today are developing a reading circuitry in the brain which differs from the one developed in the past, pre-digital era; a question she poses in the first chapter reads, “will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences–from social media to virtual games–impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading” (p.8)? 

Herein lies the contradiction.

If you are not familiar with Wolf’s work, it is important to know that she is at the forefront of neuroscience when it comes to mapping what the brain does when it reads. If Maryanne Wolf says deep reading is connected to the formation of the process of empathy, she likely has some brain imaging to support this claim. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma: Is the claim that reading can support the development of empathy, specifically in teenagers, a false claim, or is a more nuanced claim out there that can show a connection, albeit one that occurs over time?

I also wonder, what exactly are we seeing in our teenagers when they do read something that clearly has an impact, if it is not empathy? I recently asked a counselor colleague about this, and she shared her understanding of the teenage brain and its capacity and desire to help others in need (K. Haines, personal communication, November 24). This line of thinking supported an earlier conversation with yet another colleague over the need to implement empathic habits in our teenagers, even if the act of true empathy evades our learners (J. Binns, personal communication, November 21). And there is a larger issue for me, as a Teacher-Librarian specifically: I need to be very careful with my rhetoric about reading and empathy. This lifelong learning requires constant adjustment of my beliefs.

This is what I am currently grappling with on a meta, behind-the-scenes level. If you would like to discuss this further and perhaps even provide some next reads for me, I welcome your interest.

References

Feland, J. (2019, October). Stumbling toward empathy; lessons learned in building cognitive empathy in the unmyelinated teenage frontal cortex. Presented at the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference, San Francisco, CA.
Wolf, M. (2018). Reader, come home: The reading brain in a digital world. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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