“The Empathy Exams” Covers Expansive Ground in an Innovative Way

Leslie Jamison’s arresting collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, graced more than one “best of” list at the end of 2014. After reading it, I can see why. It’s original, often challenging, and an ultimately thought-provoking book.

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Not surprisingly, the quest to understand empathy — what it really means and how we come to experience it — ties all the pieces together here. What’s interesting is the way Jamison approaches it through her writing, coming at the topic from multiple angles. And given the fact that the essays included here were all published elsewhere prior to appearing in this book, the nature of empathy and our expression of it is seems to be something that preoccupies her.

In the opening essay, which gives the book its title, Jamison describes her experience working as a medical actor. These are people who pretend to have symptoms and illnesses so that doctors in training can practice both diagnosing them and interacting with patients. The actors are instructed to grade the doctors on how much they felt they empathized with them (which ultimately tends to be the doctors saying some of the same rote phrases again and again). But Jamison uses this as a jumping-off point to write about some of her own actual medical history and the way she felt doctors responded to her with empathy, or a lack thereof.

The landscapes in The Empathy Exams are expansive, taking the reader from the hills of northern Tennessee for an ultra-marathon to the gang-addled neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles to a violent night in Nicaragua and beyond. We learn, in an uncomfortably up-close and personal kind of way, about Morgellons disease and the plight of people suffering from something that many in the medical community aren’t convinced really exists. We hear about inmates and crime and also about the suffocating existence of Bolivian silver miners, working twelve-hour shifts in mines beneath the highest city in the world.

Jamison takes us to these places and introduces us to these people in an effort to answer what I see as her primary question: how can any of us truly know and feel what it’s like to be another person? We can talk about it with them, we can try to imagine ourselves in their circumstances, we can draw on the repository of similar experiences from our own lives, but we’re never quite sure we’re getting it right. That’s no reason not the try, though. As human beings, we owe that to one another. I believe that’s the overarching message of this compelling book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/01/16/louann-lofton-jamison-gives-exploration-empathy-many-angles/)

How reading literature boosts empathy and emotional intelligence

Would you believe that reading can actually make you better at perceiving the emotional states of those around you? A study out of the New School for Social Research in New York City last year supports this notion, but interestingly, it’s not just reading any old thing that brings about these results. Specifically, those who read “literary fiction” versus popular fiction or serious nonfiction scored much better on tests designed to measure their ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

What do you get from Huck Finn that you just don’t get from Harry Potter? The two researchers who conducted the study believe that the nature of literary fiction causes the reader to have to draw conclusions and make connections that aren’t obvious. There are more things left unsaid. Simply put, literary fiction makes you work — sometimes a lot. While that undoubtedly slows down your reading (no speed reading of the classics as if they were beach books), it’s also building your ability to empathize with those around you. What better argument for diving into the great literary classics of our time?

As Mississippians (note: this originally was published in the Mississippi Business Journal), we’re lucky to call many authors of those great classics our own. So if you’re looking for a reason to read or reread literary giants from the Magnolia State like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, or Larry Brown (just to name a few of my favorites), now’s the time.

Faulkner, in particular, makes you work hard for it, but the insights he provides into the human condition make every instance of furrowed brow worth it. I’m sure many of us have read As I Lay Dying and struggled through The Sound and the Fury, both exceptional. (My favorite remains Absalom, Absalom!, though.) By reading and rereading his work, we’re expanding our capacity for empathizing with our fellow man, a thought I think would delight Faulkner.

After all, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/10/25/lofton-reading-literature-boosts-empathy-emotional-intelligence/)