From the Desk of the Chief Librarian of The Finishing School

So, it’s been pretty interesting around the library since I started this blog.

I guess it didn’t really occur to me that people at The Finishing School would actually read the blog. I mean, it was meant to be aimed at the general population who knows nothing about us or our work over the centuries, so I never gave it much thought that anyone here would read it.

I’ve since found out that with just two posts, I have an avid readership within school walls. I did not see that coming. Since then, several things have happened.

First, the President of the school made a half-hearted attempt to say that I should apologize to Darryl in Finance because I called him an ass in a former post.

Now, our President is a bad ass. She takes crap from no one. I once saw her “accidentally” break a former board members’ foot with her wheelchair when he made a passing comment about her hair braids. We’re currently trying to keep her from hearing about the story of black students in Malden Massachusetts who are getting detention simply because they wear hair braids. We don’t know what she’ll do and we really don’t want to find out.

So, I choose to believe the smirk she was wearing while talking to me about collegiality and respect was tacit approval of my Darryl comment. Besides, I’ve had at least five faculty members come up to me to tell me that they don’t like the guy either. Even Jampa, our head archivist, former Tibetan monk,  and the nicest guy you’ll ever meet agreed. I heard him chuckling to himself saying, “An ass. Yes, yes. This is true. An ass indeed.”

The second thing that happened was that professors from both the History and Political Science department have been harassing me about only talking about the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke in my first post. This post focuses on how an Openness to Experience is an essential characteristic in the lives of people who have changed our world for the better.

These professors want me to highlight all the enlightenment thinkers…especially the ones that they specialize in. That is not going to happen.

The third thing that happened was that at the end of a Department Head meeting of The Finishing School Library, I was asked what I was going to talk about next in the blog. When I casually mentioned that I was going to write a post about how reading changes our brain, our lives, and possibly the world – complete bedlam ensued.

First there was a “conversation” about whether or not a discussion on reading was too stereotypical. I mean, a librarian who says we should read more – not terribly novel (don’t hate me, creating puns is actually a sign of intelligence).

Once they decided that, yes, reading was a good enough topic to represent The Finishing School, they moved on to a rabid discussion about books. I know it sounds weird, but I try not to talk about books when we have our meetings because it’s a sure way to lose total control of the room. There’s a reason these people became librarians. It took me over 15 minutes to get the meeting back under control.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk about reading was because The New York Public Library is in the midst of a #ReadersUnite campaign – a book club that uses books as a “medium for open, meaningful discussion and appreciation of cultural differences.” As Chief Librarian of The Finishing School, I want to stand in solidarity with my brethren and sistren in New York.

Another reason to talk about reading is because it’s a great continuation of our conversation on Openness to Experience. Reading is a free and easy way to open our minds, step into other worlds and change our brains for the better. So, for all of you who have set your books aside – or, who are like me, and read less and less fiction as we get busier – we should take note: Reading fiction is fantastically good for us.

We often hear that stories impact us at the deepest level of our beings. Turns out, this isn’t just waxing poetic – it’s really true. Brain research shows that reading fictional stories actually alters us at the core of our brain – and it’s all good.

Let’s look at how our brain works when we read and how we can use it to add to ourselves and the world.

When we read novels, our brain function improves. It improves because it increases our brain connectivity, and this connectivity – like building muscle, lasts beyond the time we’re reading and is still working our brains after we’ve stopped.

This increased connectivity is seen in the part of the brain associated with language – which might be expected – but it is also seen in the area that is considered the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

What is the significance of that?

This means that when we read about running, dancing, skipping, jumping – it activates the part of the brain that is used when we’re actually running, dancing, skipping, and jumping. It means that reading about someone else doing something – anything really- allows our brain to do it with them.

We are biologically putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Further, reading fantasy novels increases our brain activity even more than reading regular fiction.

Let’s talk about a practical example of how reading fiction allows us to step into someone else’s shoes.

Italian fifth graders spent six weeks examining Harry Potter books. Researchers studied the effects of doing this and they concluded that after six weeks, attitudes toward immigrants, the gay community and refugees were improved through identifying with the main character – Harry – and not identifying themselves with the antagonist – Voldemort.

This is fabulous news.

This change in attitude happens because when we read, we can take on the perspective of other people. As we said earlier – we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This proves what further research says about reading – that it increases our capacity for empathy.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into that.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto has likened reading to a simulation of reality that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

That means that through reading, we can enter into the lives of other people – we can understand how they feel and think. We can become more empathetic.

This is a theme that comes up again and again in the research of reading and the brain – that reading fiction helps us to develop more empathy.

But empathy can often be seen as warm and fuzzy – a trait for the soft-hearted, rather than a beneficial skill to be developed.  I think this preconceived notion merits a bit of a discussion.

For those of us in the Western world – and for those of us who are not, we are living in a very politically divided climate right now. It is true that empathy can be a helpful tool during these times, so let’s talk about exactly how it can be helpful…and maybe when it’s not.

Empathy can be divided into two camps: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.

Cognitive empathy is when we can see and understand the perspective of others.

Emotional empathy is when we can feel what others feel.

There’s an important difference between the two and it can cause people to react very differently.

When people are using emotional empathy, it can sometimes lead to emotional distress. Weirdly, feeling what others feel can actually be detrimental because it can be overwhelming. This feeling can actually stop us from helping others because we’re so overwhelmed.

In times of disaster, this discomfort can encourage us to turn away from those in need rather than helping them because emotional empathy can lead to feelings of helplessness.

Surprisingly, those of us who understand the perspective of others, rather than feel what they’re feeling – those of us who employ cognitive empathy – are more likely to help during times of dire need.

So maybe we need to think about the kind of empathy we’re using in different situations and see whether it’s helpful.

Emotional empathy is incredibly helpful when we need to read people and figure out what’s happening in a situation. Cognitive empathy might be a better bet when we’re trying to take action in the world.

Empathy also doesn’t mean that we abandon our ideals and values when confronted with opposing opinions. Understanding where people are coming from doesn’t mean that we have to lose sight of who we are. It allows us to be open to new thoughts and experiences. We then use our judgement to see how those new thoughts and experiences fit into our lives.

Empathy is a skill and tool that can help change us for the better and help us change the world. Reading helps us gain that skill.

It increases our emotional vocabulary, allowing us to enter into dialogue with others. It gives us enough distance from ourselves to ask ourselves whether our beliefs and ideals are selfishly motivated or whether they are morally and ethically sound.

Empathy is not a feel-good Hallmark card moment, but a tool to do good for ourselves and for our world. And we can get more of this through picking up a good novel.

In this way, the stories we read really are the stories of our lives.

So, let’s read. Whether we have 15 minutes or several hours, we can all benefit from picking up a good book.

What are you going to read next?

Thank you for your time. Thank you for adding to The Good.