Long-time readers of the blog may remember the meditative trilogy of posts (1, 2, 3) from this past summer, sparked by Alan Spence’s imagining of the life of the Zen Master Hakuin in his novel Night Boat. Others of you may recall my more recent discussion of empathetic imagination. This week, those threads resurfaced and wove themselves into this post.
In his comments to last week’s post, Friendoftheblogron mentioned a newspaper column that discussed how the current problems in Thailand are caused by “an acute shortage of empathy.” Meanwhile, the emergence of the National Collective as a grassroots force of artists and creative types in the ongoing debate leading up to Scotland’s independence referendum in September, NC’s first Edinburgh Session on Wednesday, and the launch of National Collective Aberdeen on Friday are sources of local encouragement.
Artists and creatives are often in the vanguard of the creation of national identity and the mobilisation of social and political movements. This seems to me to be particularly healthy, given that “if we can imagine the position of our fellow human being — instinctively, or upon reflection — it’s the first step to mindful engagement and finding it impossible to be racist, homophobic or sexist.”
And it turns out that one doesn’t have to be an artist, or deal with nation-shaking issues, to exercise the empathetic imagination. Picking up some literary fiction will do the trick. Nicholas Carr writes (referencing a study reported in Science magazine):
Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us at least a little more empathetic, a little more alert to the inner lives of others.
The effect echoes the meditative approach. In our daily routines, “we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings.” But when we open a book, “[w]e gain a special trance-like state of mind in which we become unaware of our bodies and our environment. We are transported.” Carr’s piece cites “a series of experiments by researchers at the New School for Social Research, reported in Science in 2013, [showing] that reading literary fiction, in particular, can strengthen a person’s ‘theory of mind,’ which is what psychologists call the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.
So, despite a feeling that trying to maintain a general and daily level of mindfulness should make resolutions unnecessary, I think I’m going to backtrack and resolve to read more books this year. In this Irish Times article, Doireann Ni Bhriain examines the problem of finding time to read, and concludes that “and only by dedicating a minimum of an hour a day to reading a book can it be overcome.”
Dan Hurley also mentions the Science study in this recent article, Can reading make you smarter? As a stroke survivor, I find that psychologists and neuroscientists are among my favourite people, so I’m glad to find their thoughts cited in this piece. The article also mentions the working memory tasks I’ve become so familiar with over the past year, as well as the use of vocabulary tests as a proxy to measure “how clever you are.” All this stuff makes the writer’s claims seem more concrete. Particularly after a recent neurological examination measuring how much figurative brain I’ve lost used a vocab test to establish an assumed level of brain performance if I’d never suffered my stroke.
Right now, we’re working our way through Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, thanks to our Edinburgh Libraries card. Last night, it emerged that this will be examining the role of the writer in politics and society. It’s not even the end January as I write this, and the Pinterest page where I store the books I want to read is already groaning. Night Boat is joined by Letters Of Note, Touching A Nerve, The Reason I Jump, The Language Of Dying, Bird Sense — What It’s Like To Be A Bird, Sandman — Overture, Tony Benn’s Final Diaries, Piece Of Light, The White Tiger, the Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, DSM-V, Andrew’s Brain, Then We Came To The End, The Mind’s Own Physician, and This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage.
It’s a very
gothy neurology-obsessed old Trot stroke survivor list. And I’ve got to get to Joyce Hoffman’s Tales Of A Stroke Patient. And I’ve got myself Leviathan as an e-book. And I’m waiting for Blackhall Library to receive my reserved copy of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914. No doubt this list is going to grow, and I’ll fall further and further behind as the year progresses. It’s still an exciting prospect, though. Not least because all this recent research is making me suggest to myself that climbing this mountain may help in my recovery. Maybe the thousands of threads these books suggest will weave themselves into a better brain. Like a 3D printing of one’s cerebrum.
Not that that matters. The soul growing will be enough in itself.