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Why We Need A (New) Generation Of Readers in South Africa

Reading promotes empathy, helping us better understand other's emotional state, a stepping stone to build meaningful relationships and more human societies.

10/03/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 10/03/2017 04:56 SAST
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"Readers are leaders", said one great teacher; leaders of their own lives. Being able to understand what is expected of us beyond our job description or mastering those psychometric tests in a job interview could be life changing situations. Turning that first date into a success or having the ability to understand (and survive) our partner's emotional needs are, definitely, lifesaving situations. What all of these occasions call for are our wits and... empathy. So relax; you're not the odd one out if, at times, you feel for your boss. You should be celebrating instead.

Here's when and why reading comes into our lives.

You know that special feeling when enjoying a good book? At first the world around us seems to be fading away as we've happily secluded ourselves. Then, after closing that volume, we feel like we've just roused from a daydream. "Oh, this place is still here... Look, my family!" Not surprisingly to discover that we can connect with them on a deeper level because we can now read (surprise!) their emotions so much better: like under a spotlight!

Empathising with those around us is the epitome of human evolution. The scientific world refers to it as the Theory of Mind (ToM) and research shows that, apparently, improving one's ability to "read" people's emotions is as easy as picking up a work of literary fiction. Psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd proved in their scientific study Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind published in Science just that.

"Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires." By assigning different reading material to a number of participants and afterwards testing them Castano and Kidd have been able to measure how well the subjects identified emotions in others. The readers of literary fiction scored, by far, the highest.

Patricia Furstenberg

Patricia Furstenberg

Patricia Furstenberg

Can You Read People's Emotions? Take The Times quiz.

Why we need empathy - and books - in South Africa

From a parent's point of view I certainly want my children to be successful in life.

Reading impacts greatly on a child's evolving mind and, apart from its neurological, educational and psychological benefits, by improving their empathy reading helps children socialise at school and thrive in life.

Besides knowledge, sharpening a child's empathic skills is just as important. If a clever brain is measured through its IQ (Intelligence Quotient), an empathic mind is measured through its EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient). A person with a high EQ will be able to better understand his own emotions as well as be able to better relate to the emotional status of those around him - thus improving his social skills and, eventually, the general social welfare of his generation.

Empathy is also proved to be crucial to a child in peer-pressure situations. Empathic children are less violent and develop into adults with a lower risk of emotional or behavioural problems later in life, violence and substance abuse included. (Did you feel as if you hated people?)

Reading is linked to empathy, self-esteem and academic success

Patricia Furstenberg

In a world where technology is omnipresent and social issues are on the rise; during a time when the rift between communities widens and the politics, not the civility, governs; when social indifference, not social compassion seem to be ruling our lives; when today's major subject couldn't be further away from tomorrow's job and when employment policies, not work equity seem to rule, a new generation of readers, of emphatic human beings, is more in demand than ever before. "Fiction may change how, not just what, people think about others." (Kidd, Castano)

5 Ways to foster empathy in our children

Patricia Furstenberg

5 Reasons why we need more good books in our lives

  1. Reading promotes empathy, helping us better understand other's emotional state, a stepping stone to build meaningful relationships and more human societies.
  2. Reading promotes social welfare by bringing people together through enjoyable means.
  3. Reading develops consciousness; when one reads information is being absorbed on a conscious as well as unconscious way.
  4. Reading enriches our lives.
  5. Reading stimulates the intellect and the soul.

Surely reading literary fiction couldn't be the only way to improve one's ToM. Art, movies and musical performances also come into light.

I may not have read all the volumes of Hugo's Les Miserables, but I remember watching the movie. The character of Jean Valjean still gives me goose bumps. Perhaps a 21st century musical production would be just as effective?

It would be interesting to find out if and how coming in contact with other works of art influences one's empathic levels.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Proposed literary fiction for your child

I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; but they have all helped to make me. (Emerson)