In my article, 'Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)' I pointed out that when we read books, especially quality fiction, we empathize with the characters in the book so that their experiences become our experiences. We enter into a world very different from our own but which, through imagination, begins to feel just as real as our world.
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.
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 other’s struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence.
In other words, healthy relationships require patient attentiveness. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient attentiveness.
The general loss of attentiveness in our culture affects the set of expectations we bring to relationships, eroding our ability to empathize in this way. From fast food to immediate downloads to instant messaging, immediate gratification has become the norm. This makes patient and attentive listening a cognitively unnatural activity. Instead our brain enters into a condition that some researchers have described as “continuous partial attention.” The result is that our listening skills become significantly atrophied.
Media such as the i-touch, the i-phone, the android and even the internet itself, encourage distractedness, impatience and the kind of hurried and scattered focus that finds attentiveness to anything—including people we love—laborious and boring.
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.