SYDNEY: Misery loves empathy

I’m feeling the sort of incapacitation triggered by a big meal, that moment of staring at the last bite of dessert, realizing you just can’t manage another morsel. Midterms have brought me to this point. Instead of downing a bit of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, this afternoon I coped with the post-exam thoughtless state by avoiding any sort of substantive work, focusing on crafting a loose interpretation of a rhinoceros costume for a French oral. In other words: So done.

Though I’m currently in Intro to the Human Brain, I haven’t yet learned whether my cerebrum induces this state of complete mental shutdown as a safety precaution, as some sort of reboot or if this feeling is in fact the fermentation period when all the information I’ve crammed in the past few days is truly processed into stored knowledge. Regardless, I can’t help but feel that in the absorption of all this material I’ve somehow missed the point a bit.

Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, researchers at the New School, recently conducted a study finding that participants performed better on tests measuring empathy and emotional intelligence after reading literary fiction. In that particular study, they did not find the same positive effects to be true when reading non-fiction and other genres. But I would argue that this capacity for emotional intelligence is not only enhanced by literary fiction, but also by good scholarship. Empathy is the cross-discipline lesson learned through scholarly pursuits — the true takeaway from an education to a far greater extent than the mental database of slides and facts I built in preparation for my midterms.

A few days ago over lunch, I spoke with a friend regarding her personal turnoff from a career in academia. She expressed her aversion toward spending her career writing secondary sources. She wants to produce work that feels new, that feels like it’s hers. I understood her point and her apprehension. Yet in the moment, I couldn’t put a finger on why I find secondary scholarship so rewarding for the self and important outside of the context of the academic community.

Now, I’ve realized the answer is empathy. An academic approach to material asks the student to engage in the imagining of an other and this other’s motivations and objectives, much like understanding the characters in a work of literary fiction influenced the emotional intelligence of subjects in the New School’s study. To understand how a particular scientist developed a theory, or why an artist chose a certain shade of green, the student must see it through the eyes of its creator. This requires empathy.

To me, midterm exams ask the student to do the precise opposite. You go into a room ready to deposit weeks of knowledge onto the pages of a blue book. You want to get down conclusions, concretions and objective facts — in short, the Right Answer. Unfortunately, process generally lies outside the bounds of the Right Answer, and it’s process that leads to empathy.

Ultimately, empathy carries more value than most Right Answers. To learn empathy from my coursework, I can’t only study to know, but to understand why this information reached my academic orbit, what it meant to its author and what its value is outside the walls of Davies or SSS.

I look forward to emerging from my current pitiful, unthinking state and renewing my quest to mine empathy from my scholarly experiences. When we can better understand the other behind our course packets, labs and textbooks we can also better understand each other.

Empathy brings warmth to human interaction. In the coming weeks, these blue skied, unseasonably temperate days will fade and we will have to turn to each other to escape the chill. Start cramming now for these upcoming empathy midterms.

Caroline Sydney is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at