Wired for Empathy: Why We Can’t Resist Good Narrative

Editor’s note: This is re-posted from Firesteel and is the first installment of a three-part series on storytelling, empathy, and advocacy.

the-call-of-the-wild-1200x726Written by Perry Firth, project coordinator, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness and school psychology graduate student

I was mesmerized by Jack London’s Alaska: beautiful, severe, raw.

A skinny second grader belly down on the carpet of my bedroom floor, I was reading long after my parents had turned off my light.

But I had no choice! London’s writing had transported me to another world, free of the mundane realities that plague children, like a set bedtime and parents.

In this new world I empathized with London’s protagonist, a sled dog named Buck in Call of the Wild.

What is so powerful about this memory in hindsight is not that it marked the first time I fell in love with independent reading, but that it is a collective experience. Absolute absorption in a compelling story is something that almost all people can relate to; it is universal.

This absorption in another’s world happens, to varying degrees of intensity, every time we hear, read (or watch) a good story.

So here’s what fascinates me: Why does this happen? What is so important—evolutionarily—about stories that they command our attention in a way few things can? And are there stories that impact us more than others? Why does this occur? And, to be addressed a little later in this series, what does the hardwired human preference for stories mean for social justice advocates?

Read more of this post.

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