Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .
Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.
A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.
The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.