How Literature Teaches Empathy
I used to work in a teaching hospital where one of the doctors regularly asked psychiatry residents to read a story by Anton Chekhov called Misery or To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief? The story is about a man who can find no one to talk to about his sorrow about the recent death of his son. I understood the teacher to be trying to convey to young psychiatrists something about the futility of many ordinary efforts to pacify or eradicate grief, as well as how difficult it can be for a suffering person to find real understanding, and how rare and valuable it is simply to listen to another person. Chekhov makes these points in a more immediate, vivid, and memorable way through a story.
Now it seems that the story may not only have helped the doctors recognize the importance of listening by conveying that idea; in addition, the act of reading the story may itself have enhanced their empathic skills. So says an article in the New York Times entitled For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov, declaring Chekhov and other literary authors to be direct educators of human nature. The article cites a study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano in published in the journal Science in which “reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective theory of mind.”
Chekhov tells a story describing human emotional interaction, and he tells it in a way that engages the reader in working to understand the characters. This in turn may improve the reader’s skills in understanding other people’s complex inner states and social relationships. In the study, this seemed to work as well with contemporary literary fiction (here is the list of stories they used) but not with popular fiction or nonfiction.