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Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed fundamentally, it was 18th century Europe, and Britain in particular. During this period, a cognitive revolution took place, powered by an extraordinary new technology: the printing press. Gutenberg's contraption was a curiosity machine. It facilitated the rapid spread and exchange of ideas, corroding old certainties and igniting powerful new ideas. Sir Francis Bacon called the printing press one of three inventions, along with firearms and the compass, that "changed the whole face and state of the world."

Until this point in history, intellectual curiosity — what psychologists call "epistemic curiosity"— had been regarded with deep suspicion by the authorities. The Catholic Church declared it a sin, a dangerous diversion from the contemplation of God's greatness. But now, as the Reformation loosened the grip of Catholic dogma and literacy rates rose, the British embarked on a mass intellectual adventure. According to historian Roy Porter, between 1660 and 1800 more than 300,000 separate book and pamphlet titles were published in England, amounting to something like 200 million copies. The presses churned out how-to/self-help/DIY books, educational treatises, and advice manuals on everything from gardening to gymnastics, carpentry to cookery. Hefty reference books/volumes such as Johnson's Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica were published, along with histories of the arts and sciences. Curiosity became cool.

In parallel with the rise of epistemic curiosity, another kind of curiosity was burgeoning as well: curiosity about the thoughts and feelings of others, including those very different from oneself. We can call this empathic curiosity.

Of course, being interested in what others are up to is a fundamental part of being human; we are a nosy species, compelled to observe and learn from those around us. But from the 18th century on, the desire to understand the minds and dispositions of people very different from us became more urgent, and the ability to do so more sophisticated.

The new locus of curiosity was not the university or the drawing room, but the street. To borrow from Jane Jacobs, the rise of the city provided "what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely, the strange." Strangers, a rare phenomenon if you lived in a village, were everywhere in the city, and their strangeness invited investigation, or at least speculation. In the room downstairs, or just around the corner, were secret passions, bizarre beliefs, weird customs.

Like many of his contemporaries, James Boswell didn't like the way cities packed people together, but Samuel Johnson saw it as a perk: "It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists." Johnson's most famous remark — "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" — captured the sense of the city as a mystery that could never be exhausted.

The major index of the rise in empathic curiosity was literature: fiction, drama, and poetry. William Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo Galilei (1564). Each might be considered a founding figure of empathic and epistemic curiosity, respectively. Around the same time that Galileo turned his telescope to the stars and Sir Francis Bacon codified the scientific method, Shakespeare revolutionized the dramatic soliloquy, allowing ordinary men and women a glimpse inside the hearts and minds of kings.

In the 18th century, a whole new literary form was born: the novel took readers further inside the consciousness of others than any previous kind of story or art formthe novel took readers further inside the consciousness of others than any previous kind of story or art form. There proved to be a tremendous popular hunger for such journeys. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) had a print run of 5,000 in its first year; Henry Fielding's Amelia (1751) sold as many in its first week. This desire to read about the lives of others went far beyond nosiness. When readers picked up Pamela or David Copperfield, they were finding out something of what it felt like to be another person — to spend time inside the mind of someone from a different sex, age, culture, or class.

In 1759 economist and philosopher Adam Smith argued that each of us can be a "judicious spectator" who imagines as vividly as possible what it is to be "in the situation of the other," and he used literary reading as his model for this new way of thinking. A hundred years later, novelist George Eliot proposed that "the greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies."

Contemporary American philosopher Richard Rorty argued that the novel was the "characteristic genre of democracy" because of its role in widening the circle of sympathy people felt for others. Despite being a philosopher himself, he proposed that fiction was a superior tool to reason when it came to bringing people together. A Christian and an atheist, for example, might not be able to reason their way to common sympathy, and may well get into a fight, because the very methods of reasoning they each relied on were parochial, born of the "epistemic communities" of which they are a part. Rorty believed that only fiction has the power to cross the mental barricades, to make strangers intelligible to each other, because it moves people's hearts as well as engaging their minds.

Rorty gave the example of the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, generally acknowledged to have had a profound effect on attitudes toward slavery, due to its powerful portrayal of long-suffering Uncle Tom. The novel sold 300,000 copies in its first year of publication in America and a million in Britain. It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, as the Civil War began, he remarked, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (To me, this doesn't necessarily read as a compliment, though apparently that's how it was received.)

Recently, scientists have become interested in exactly what it is about fiction that makes it so compelling. In 2011 Raymond Mar, a professor of psychology at York University in Canada, published a review of 86 fMRI brain scan studies and concluded that there was substantial overlap between the neural networks we use to understand stories and the ones we use to navigate our relationships. Novels offer us a kind of mental simulation of real-life encounters, giving us useful practice in how to interpret the intentions, motives, longings, and frustrations of friends, enemies, neighbors, and lovers.

One of Mar's studies found a similar result in preschool-age children — the more stories they had read to them, the keener their ability to understand other minds. The effect was also produced by watching movies but not by watching television, an anomaly that Mar thinks may be explained by the fact that children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, and thus are more likely to have conversations about why Alex the Lion wants to go back to the zoo. The curiosity of children depends on the curiosity of their parents.

Building on Mar's work, in 2013 researchers at the New School in New York found that people performed better on tests of social and emotional intelligence after reading fiction. Even more interestingly, this applied to literary fiction and not to plot-driven popular fiction. The reason, said the researchers, is that literary fiction leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make more effort in interpreting the motives of characters.

When we're genuinely curious about others, we work harder at understanding them. Reading novels, we get better at reading people.

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Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. He writes on psychology, social trends, and politics for publications in the U.K. and U.S., including Slate, The Economist, NPR,, The Guardian, Daily Mail, The Times, Daily Telegraph, and Granta.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. David Copperfield (Vintage Classics)
    New Trade Paper $10.00
  2. Pamela Used Trade Paper $4.46
  3. Amelia. by Henry Fielding, Esq. in... New Trade Paper $24.75
  4. Robinson Crusoe (Dover Thrift Editions) Used Trade Paper $4.00
  5. The Death and Life of Great American... Used Trade Paper $9.00
  6. Uncle Tom's Cabin Used Trade Paper $12.00

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It

One Response to "Empathic Curiosity"

    Ian R August 31st, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    While novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin do have the power to create empathy, the author has cherry-picked one side of the coin; literature, like all forms of communication, is powerful, and that power may be wielded for or against a person or people.

    The essay opens in the 18th century and notes the impact of an “extraordinary new technology”; everyone knows, however, that the printing press arrived in the 15th century. The careful omission of 300 years allows the author to gloss over the ominous early history of the printing press, whose appearance almost instantly triggered a violent split of the Church, the Inquisition, and global genocide in God’s name. The first bestselling author of the print age was Martin Luther, who, far from demonstrating empathic curiosity, acquired fame by delineating the differences between himself and others. A wave of empathy did not result—rather a religious divide that pitted religious forces in a desperate war for souls and lives.

    The printing press is hardly the first instance of a new literary era fostering isolationism. The Hebrew Bible, revolutionary for promoting literacy with its use of an easily-read alphabet, is a manual of isolation and singularity.

    The idea that the novel is some sort of cheerful primer for navigating the dense human network of an urban environment is also way off the mark. Defoe’s Diary of the Plague Year is a testament to the danger of living in cities and early novels are bleak in their depiction of the struggles of young people, especially working class women, to find any sort of meaningful existence in the industrialized economy. I also believe that any culture with an oral tradition would be shocked to hear that the arrival of the novel in the 18th century meant that Europeans were finally interested in hearing stories about others.

    Earlier explosions of material in the printed word are no different than our current experience with Internet communication, which can hardly be described as unilaterally good or bad. The Internet provides a platform to discover many disparate voices, but also creates feedback mechanisms for individuals to find their own ideas reinforced, ad nauseam. These means have created political rifts within countries across the globe, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and threaten to destabilize global society. To me, this sounds just like the world when Gutenberg’s press unleashed its unimaginable power, for better or worse.

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