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Narrative 14.3 (2006) 207-236

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A Theory of Narrative Empathy

We are living in a time when the activation of mirror neurons in the brains of onlookers can be recorded as they witness another's actions and emotional reactions.1 Contemporary neuroscience has brought us much closer to an understanding of the neural basis for human mind reading and emotion sharing abilities—the mechanisms underlying empathy. The activation of onlookers' mirror neurons by a coach's demonstration of technique or an internal visualization of proper form and by representations in television, film, visual art, and pornography has already been recorded.2 Simply hearing a description of an absent other's actions lights up mirror neuron areas during fMRI imaging of the human brain.3 The possibility that novel reading stimulates mirror neurons' activation can now, as never before, undergo neuroscientific investigation. Neuroscientists have already declared that people scoring high on empathy tests have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brains.4 Fiction writers are likely to be among these high empathy individuals. For the first time we might investigate whether human differences in mirror neuron activity can be altered by exposure to art, to teaching, to literature.

This newly enabled capacity to study empathy at the cellular level encourages speculation about human empathy's positive consequences. These speculations are not new, as any student of eighteenth-century moral sentimentalism will affirm, but they dovetail with efforts on the part of contemporary virtue ethicists, political philosophers, educators, theologians, librarians, and interested parties such as authors and publishers to connect the experience of empathy, including its literary [End Page 207] form, with outcomes of changed attitudes, improved motives, and better care and justice. Thus a very specific, limited version of empathy located in the neural substrate meets in the contemporary moment a more broadly and loosely defined, fuzzier sense of empathy as the feeling precursor to and prerequisite for liberal aspirations to greater humanitarianism. The sense of crisis stirred up by reports of stark declines in reading goes into this mix, catalyzing fears that the evaporation of a reading public leaves behind a population incapable of feeling with others. Yet the apparently threatened set of links among novel reading, experiences of narrative empathy, and altruism has not yet been proven to exist. This essay undertakes three tasks preliminary to the scrutiny of the empathy-altruism hypothesis5 as it might apply to experiences of narrative empathy (to be developed in greater detail in the forthcoming Empathy and the Novel). These tasks include: a discussion of empathy as psychologists understand and study it; a brief introduction to my theory of narrative empathy, including proposals about how narrative empathy works; and a review of the current research on the effects of specific narrative techniques on real readers.

What is Empathy?

Empathy, a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect, can be provoked by witnessing another's emotional state, by hearing about another's condition, or even by reading. Mirroring what a person might be expected to feel in that condition or context, empathy is thought to be a precursor to its semantic close relative, sympathy.6 Personal distress, an aversive emotional response also characterized by apprehension of another's emotion, differs from empathy in that it focuses on the self and leads not to sympathy but to avoidance. The distinction between empathy and personal distress matters because empathy is associated with the moral emotion sympathy (also called empathic concern) and thus with prosocial or altruistic action.7 Empathy that leads to sympathy is by definition other-directed, whereas an over-aroused empathic response that creates personal distress (self-oriented and aversive) causes a turning-away from the provocative condition of the other. None of the philosophers who put stock in the morally improving experience of narrative empathy include personal distress in their theories. Because novel reading can be so easily stopped or interrupted by an unpleasant emotional reaction to a book, however, personal distress has no place in a literary theory of empathy, though it certainly contributes to aesthetic emotions, such as those Sianne Ngai describes in her...