The Science of Storytelling

I started reading The Science of Storytelling because it was a non-fiction week and I wanted to change the theme away from feminism and leadership through empathy and kindness.
The author, Will Storr, decided to write the book when he discovered that there were many parallels between what psychologists and neuroscientists tell us about how the mind works and what storytellers tell us about narrative. To me, it felt like the book was at least as much about human behavior as it was about storytelling and I found it more interesting and fascinating because of it.

Storr argues that it’s not the plot that makes a book gripping and enjoyable, but that it’s the characters and our ability to relate to them and experience the change that they go through throughout a book. This change is essential. The story shouldn’t just describe what the protagonist experiences on the outside, it should also be about the world inside them. What do they feel when their core beliefs are challenged and how does this change them?

The world as we see it is actually constructed in our brains. As we observe the world our brains put a very strong filter over it, that is based on our genes and everything that we have experienced in life up until that point. No two people observe the same scene (in real-life or in a story) in exactly the same way and the amount of false information that our brains can put into any observation is staggering. We don’t do this on purpose. We wouldn’t be able to stop it even if we wanted to.
The way we experience reality is warped by faulty information. We create a distorted version of reality inside our skulls. Because this is the only reality we know, we have no way of determining what part we made up based on our biases and the narrative that we created about ourselves.

When people plead with us that we’re mistaken or cruel and acting irrationally, we feel driven to find a way to dismiss the arguments they present to us. We know we’re right. We feel we’re right. We see evidence for it everywhere. We all feel that we see and experience the one objective version of reality, yet we all experience something slightly (or not so slightly) different. The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that our filters are somewhat similar. This makes it easier to understand and often agree with these people. The more different someone’s experiences have been, the more difficult it is to imagine yourself being in their shoes. It’s not hard to imagine that this can be a source of conflict.
I can think of several moments in the last week that I have argued out loud or in my head about how my view of a particular situation is right and thus the other person’s view must be wrong. Reading this last paragraph makes me shiver. Would it be possible that how I see the world is not how it really is? Is it possible that I might be wrong?!?

The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armory of crafty biases. When we come across a new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. When it’s consistent with our model of reality our neural reward systems spike and we feel good about it. If not, we want to reject it and we look for justifications to do so. These responses are fully unconscious and they have a powerful influence over us. When deciding whether to believe something or not, we don’t usually make an even-handed search for evidence. Instead, we hunt for any reason to confirm what our models have instantaneously decided for us. On top of that, we kid ourselves that this one-sided hunt for confirmatory information was noble and thorough.

This process is extremely cunning. It’s not simply that we ignore or forget evidence that goes against what our models tell us (although we do that too). We find dubious ways of rejecting the authority of opposing experts, give arbitrary weight to some parts of their testimony and not others, lock onto the tiniest genuine flaws in their argument and use them to dismiss them entirely. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, you haven’t been on social media much lately and might have been unusually productive by avoiding this time-consuming source of frustration.
If you think that you’re too smart to fall for the confirmation-bias trap you’re wrong. Intelligence isn’t effective at dissolving these cognitive mirages of rightness. Smart people are mostly better at finding ways to “prove” they’re right and tend to be no better at detecting their wrongness. I hope this makes you do a double-take and at least briefly reevaluate some of the discussions that you had recently.
While all of this is shocking, it also explains a whole lot. For instance about the debate on the seriousness of the climate emergency that we are experiencing in the world, but also about how certain world-leaders can continue to live with themselves and even still have a loyal following.

The models in our brains are flexible during childhood and adolescence. After that they become mostly fixed and changing them becomes harder and more painful. This explains why older people have more trouble dealing with change and why older people often seem to become more unreasonable and bigoted.
It also means that our experiences during our childhood and adolescence are very important. They are instructive to the people we grow up to be. Our popularity at school, the way our parents look at the world around them and the role models that we look up to influence how we experience reality and look at the world forever. It’s not impossible to change as a grown-up, but it is a lot harder.

A lot of us will naturally prefer storytellers who have a similar background to our own. If we want to get a better understanding of other people we should try to branch out. Through stories of people who have lived different lives to our own, we can experience different models first hand through the eyes of the protagonist. This can help us to become more understanding and appreciative of different cultures and ideas.
While emerged in a well-designed story, we start to think about a character as if we are them. Our bodies even physically respond as if we are. Our heart-rates might go up and our blood vessels might dilate. We become so absorbed in the world of the storyteller that we forget about our surroundings and we miss our train stop or forget to go to sleep.
This resonates strongly with me. It even adds a new excuse to the “why I don’t go to bed on time” list. I thought it was just me being stubborn and focused on the short term, but it’s actually because I’m temporarily suspended in a different world!

Although I realize we can’t force people to consume certain stories, whether in film or through books, people seeing the world through the eyes of their foes might be just what the world needs. If stories can help us to bridge the gaps in understanding and generate empathy for different cultures and ideas they might be what’s most likely to save us from eradicating the human race or even destroy our planet.
Having a better understanding of how my brain works and how unreliable it is, means that I will try to be more vigilant when I feel that I’m right. Knowing that understanding other people’s models will make me more sympathetic to their ideas, means that I will try to branch out in terms of the types of books and authors that I read. I know that I won’t be able to beat my brain and my biases, but I can at least try!

I could have written several completely different posts about this book, which is a testament to how full it is of interesting facts, stories, and information. I could have written about how happiness is mostly about being engaged in what you are doing at this moment and not about some pot of gold that is to be found at the end of the rainbow through some magical quest. I could also have written about how a gripping story follows the change that a protagonist is going through. Or about the power of metaphors and the use of cause-and-effect and how we confabulate. I also found it interesting to read about how similar a healthy brain and a mentally ill brain really are. It’s fascinating and frankly a bit scary to read about how competitive we are and how we perceive others who we deem more successful than ourselves for one reason or another.
If you are at all interested in the human condition or in how to tell a gripping story I recommend that you read The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.

A reader lives a thousand lives

The Alice Network – impossible to put down

I missed quite a few hours of sleep this week because I was unable to put Kate Quinn’s brilliant novel The Alice Network down. The main characters are so lively and real I couldn’t wait to get to know them better and learn about what happened to them and their loved ones. Some of the characters don’t just seem real, they were real. The Alice Network was the most efficient spy network of WW I, run by Alice Dubois, whose real name was Louise de Bettignies. Although she was well known by contemporary British intelligence and military men and fiercely hated by the Germans, she’s not very well known today.

Spying wasn’t cool before James Bond and Covert Affairs and female spies had it even worse. Despite the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which they had to live they were supposed to behave like saints. If they didn’t they were quickly assumed to be whores. The book tells the story of Eve Gardiner (a fictional character), a file girl who desperately wants to prove that she is capable of greater things. Eve has a stammer, which makes people think she’s simple-minded and weak. She has a soft and innocent face but she is an exceptionally good liar. And not simple-minded at all.

The Alice Network2

The story of Eve, which plays in 1915, is alternated with that of Charlie St. Clair, which plays in 1947. Charlie is the daughter of rich parents. Her brother fought in WW II and was unable to adjust to regular life afterward. He killed himself, leaving her parents heartbroken and Charlie wrecked with guild. Charlie is a math wizard, but after her brothers dead she starts missing school and gets herself pregnant. To make things right with the world she wants to find her cousin Rose, who went missing during the war. It’s this search that makes the paths of Charlie and Eve cross.

Quinn very quickly makes you fall in love with the characters (or hate them in some cases). They are trapped in very difficult situations, but at some level, I still wanted to be both Eve and Charlie. Eve’s courage is incomprehensible and her strength is out of this world. If I compare Eve’s life with mine I’m not allowed to complain ever again (don’t worry, I still will) and yet she remains determined and brave and never gives up. Thinking about the role that women like her played in both wars makes me feel humbled and proud to be a woman.

Charlie loves very passionately and has a similar unwavering determination. She also has a problem that she tries to ignore, even though that’s proving impossible. She hates the fancy but inconvenient clothes that her mum wants her dressed in. While her mother sends her to college to find a good husband, Charlie actually wants to make something of her life. She’s not content with the idea of just being someone’s wife.

Books like this (and the news) make me wonder what I will do if a war would break out. It’s easy to argue that we are already at a point where we should all be fighting to try and save the world from overheating and getting covered in plastic waste. That we should fight against the rise of hate of everyone who is not exactly like you. When will I start to fight? I minimize the amount of plastic packaging that I use, I have a reusable tea mug at work, I eat very little meat, I’m kind to the people around me and I regularly check my biases, but none of this is revolutionary, nor is it going to save the world. I’m a terrible liar and all my emotions are clearly displayed on my face, so I will never be a spy (or a good poker player). But there are so many for other types of activism. When will I take action? What will it take for me to step up?

I have no idea and it worries me.

The Taming of the Shrew

It was another Shakespeare week. This time I read The Taming of the Shrew. Which before this I thought was called the taming of the screw. It didn’t make sense, but I figured that was just my somewhat limited understanding of the English language.

I felt that The Taming of the Shrew was easier to read than Hamlet and Macbeth. That the English used is more modern-day English. That doesn’t make sense, as it is thought that this might be Shakespeare’s first play. If you have read it I love to hear your thoughts.

The story is no more uplifting than the above mentioned two, although no one dies in The Taming of the Shrew. Baptista is a rich man from Padua. He has two daughters, Katharina (or Kate) who is the oldest and Bianca. Katharina is considered a difficult woman. Bianca is much more complacent. Several men are fighting for the right to marry Bianca, but Baptista makes it clear that Bianca will not get married before Katharina does.

Luckily for Bianca’s suitors, Petruchio shows up and he likes Baptista’s money and the challenge of trying to tame Kate. As they meet for the first time Kate slaps Petruchio. While Petruchio never physically touches Kate he creates an extensive scheme of emotional abuse and manipulation. He hits the priest that marries them and abuses his servants, under the pretense of feeling that they didn’t deliver the perfection that Kate deserves, all with Kate present. He won’t let her eat because the meat isn’t good enough. He won’t let her sleep because the bed isn’t good enough and the sheets aren’t clean enough. He starves Kate and keeps her awake at night under the guise of perfect love. He plays mind games on her until she gives up on all her ideas and opinions.

Eventually, he breaks her. Kate will serve Petruchio without ever questioning him. She will always agree with him for fear of what he will do if she doesn’t.
Apparently, there is a discussion about whether The Taming of the Shrew is a passionate love story or an examination of brute male domination. I don’t understand how this can be a discussion. If your partner thinks this is what passionate love looks like I advise you to run fast and far.
I’m happy to have read another Shakespeare play, to be able to tick it off the list, but it’s safe to say that this will not be my favorite.

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

I chose to read this book because, well, who wouldn’t want to win friends and influence people. I thought it made sense to go for the updated version “in the digital age” because email and social media have a significant impact on our lives and the way we communicate.
It lists Dale Carnegie (and associates) as the writer, but upon a short investigation it turns out that mister Carnegie was born in 1888 and died in 1955. I think it’s safe to assume that his associates did most of the rewriting. Although no doubt it’s based on the original How to Win Friends and Influence People that mister Carnegie wrote in 1936.

A very short summary is partially provided at the start of the book. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. If you’re wrong, admit it. Listening is more important than talking if you want to create a connection to someone. Find out what matters to them, discover their core desire. Apart from a good summary, it’s also good advice. Like most of the management and self-help books that I’ve read recently it all comes down to kindness and empathy.
Part of this might be my unconscious bias. I believe this to be the case, so I’m significantly more likely to extract this from any book that I read. For the same reason, I’m also more likely to pick out books that I think will promote this idea. Even though the basic principles described in How to Influence People and Win Friends aren’t new I was inspired by the stories and ideas in it.

Social media has put communication in today’s world on steroids. The speed of it all and the potential reach can be very helpful, but it can also lead to shallowness and thoughtlessness. It’s very easy to criticize or even insult someone from the comfort of your own home, enjoying the anonymity of an untraceable username and drawn curtains. You can stand out by being kind and considerate. Even if you don’t agree with someone you can try to empathize with their position and situation. You can stop and think about how they must feel, especially those who are copping a lot of nastiness online. If you are truly unable to address someone in a respectful way you could always consider to not say anything at all (I know, it’s revolutionary).

You don’t have to criticize others to appear interesting or important. If you criticize or complain about someone to other people, these people will undoubtedly wonder if (or even assume that) you would talk about them in the same way. It makes it hard for people to trust you.
If you can stay true to your own values and at the same time show compassion for those you don’t agree with you build trust. Communicating in a caring rather than a condemning way is a good differentiation strategy in a time where the spirit of communication is often less than dignifying. Whether online or in a boardroom, if you manage to speak in a spirit of respectful affirmation you are much more likely to win friends and influence people.

A lot of focus on social media is put on the number of likes our content gets. We believe that influence and happiness come from the sheer volume of impressions that we manage to collect. It doesn’t. A like on what someone posts on social media can be the start of a connection. It sends a signal that you agree with the content as well as (at least to a certain extent) the messenger. It can also create affinity to other people who are drawn to the same people and opinions, but for a true connection, you need to share more than a like. A like is safe, but also shallow.

True influence flows from drawing together people with shared interests. Influence is not about you. And you don’t need the following of a celebrity to build something of significance. You are ultimately building a community when you initiate interactions with what matters to others. You want to add true value to people’s lives. Don’t worry about how many people you are connected to but worry instead about who you are connected to. Who are they and what are you doing to value and honor them. Most happiness can, after all, be drawn from making other people feel good. It’s not the number of people and messages that matter, it’s the few that are truly meaningful that make the difference.

This really got me thinking about what I want to achieve with this blog and my weekly book posts. I’m no longer too bothered by the idea of attracting a large following or a large number of readers, but what do my posts mean to you, the people who do read them? To be honest I have no idea. I love to read and write and the weekly posts keep me accountable. After some valuable feedback from a great friend and writer, I started to make sure that the posts have more of “me” in them instead of just being a plain summary or review of a book. It has helped me to find an angle for the posts, even if there isn’t that much to say about a book. But what do you get out of my writing? Other than hopefully a few minutes of entertainment while reading and perhaps the occasional idea about a book that you might want to read.
I will do more thinking on this, but if you feel that my posts provide value to you I would love to hear about it. If you have an idea about how my posts could be of more value to you I would be grateful if you are willing to share it with me.

It’s funny that when we communicate our message, we spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about the way we come across. We also spend a remarkably short amount of time wondering what really matters to the intended recipient. This is true for blog posts, personal communication, and the marketing messages of many companies. We should pay more attention to details, to people’s needs and wants. Focus on other people’s goals and you might reach your own. Just focusing on the big picture of your own goals will get you nowhere if you need other people to achieve them. Too often we are campaigning instead of connecting.

It’s safe to say that even though the ideas behind the book are almost a hundred years old it’s still very relevant. It provides inspiration about basic ways to behave and interact with other people, as well as how to use social media.
There is one thing I don’t like about the book. At times it uses expressions that to me feel old-fashioned and demeaning towards women. It’s never direct and probably unintentional. Perhaps it’s in bits of the original 1936 text. But having re-written a lot of the book it should have been easy to come up with a different way to get the message across.

There is of course more to the book than I touched on in this post. The ideas that also stood out to me but that didn’t make it into this post were the tips on how to give feedback and how to share praise. How can you give someone feedback in a way that they will be open to receiving it and that allows them to learn from it and feel inspired by it? Rather than knocking down their confidence and making them scared to experiment and innovate. How do you handle and address your own failures? Nobody’s perfect and neither are you. What is the impact of praise on people’s motivation? Spoiler alert, it can be significant!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – uncomfortable and gripping

I picked Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine because it kept coming up as a suggestion at several booksellers, both online and offline and because I was fascinated by the title. Whenever I saw the title I had images of Babar the Elephant pop into my mind. That’s not surprising as “elephant” in Dutch is “olifant”. For that reason, I also wondered if there was a link with The Netherlands.
I don’t think I’m giving away too much by telling you that the book is not about elephants and that there is no connection with The Netherlands. The book is set in Glasgow.

Eleanor is a thirty-year-old woman and her interactions with other people are a bit awkward. I cringed through the first few chapters of the book. At times it was so uncomfortable I wasn’t sure if I should read on as quickly as possible or if I should put the book away. Every time I opted to read on. I read while cooking, while having dinner and while making tea. I went to bed too late and then read some more in bed. I still find it hard to say what made it so hard to put the book down, but it is clearly brilliant writing from Gail Honeyman. It’s so good that it’s hard to believe this is Gail’s debut novel, but it’s also so fresh and original that it’s easy to believe it’s a debut.

Eleanor is unworldly. In many ways, she’s like an awkward teenager, except she’s thirty and seems to be immune to peer pressure. She reminds me a bit of my early teenage self in its worst moments. That’s not something I want to be reminded about, to be honest, but thankfully that’s where the similarities end.

One of the differences between Eleanor and my teenage self is that Eleanor doesn’t like hard rock and musical theatre. I loved both and hard rock was one of the things that finally helped me to fit in somewhere. To be part of a group. I was on team black t-shirts, black jeans, and army boots. Dressing up for family affairs meant wearing a black dress and army boots. I loved it. It was my way of rebelling.
Musical theatre was very much a family thing for me. The first time I saw a musical in real-life was when the whole family went to see Cats for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. I was mesmerized. I don’t have high hopes for the film, but I will definitely watch it! Eleanor summarizes her opinion about musical theatre thus: “There is no such thing as Hell, of course, but if there was, then the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theatre. The complete oeuvre of Lloyd Webber and Rice would be performed, without breaks, on a stage inside the fiery pit, and an audience of sinners would be forced to watch – and listen – for eternity.”
It made me laugh out loud.

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. There are many surprises in there and I don’t want to ruin them for you. I recommend that you read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine yourself. It’s a lovely, surprising and unexpectedly gripping book.

The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World

I feel very strongly about kindness and empathy. I always try to be kind, even when I’m tired and in a hurry and I don’t feel like it. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. When I learned about a book called The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World I immediately knew I wanted to read it.
Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford University who has been studying how empathy works for many years and he wrote this book about his most important findings.

The first time I started thinking about empathy was after hearing David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water”. I realize there are serious problems with David Foster Wallace’s legacy, but the speech is so powerful I still want to quote it. The speech is about making a conscious decision to think about what you’re thinking, instead of just living your life on autopilot. Many of us are like the young fish described at the start of the speech. And the people in the supermarket. And the people stuck in traffic.
If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
 
You get the idea.
 
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
 
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Our feelings and emotions are not determined by what happens to us. They are determined by how we react to what happens to us. I try to always keep this in mind and actively practice it. People who I think of as assholes who are in my way don’t think about the world with me at the center of it in the way I do. They, by definition, experience life and the world around them with themselves at the center of it all. They might have very good reasons for behaving in the way they do. They might be very annoyed by my behavior, even if I didn’t mean to annoy anyone, or if I had a very good reason for behaving the way I did.
I know for a fact that I’m sometimes annoying for the people close to me because whenever they complain about others I try to come up with suggestions about why the people they are furious at behaved the way they did. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to hear when you are trying to blow off some steam.

In the book, Zaki describes how empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness. It triggers us to help others, even at a cost to ourselves. This cost is worth it, both on a personal and an evolutionary level.
If many humans weren’t willing to help others we would not exist and certainly not thrive as a species. Human baby’s and kids are helpless for much longer than most other species’ offspring. They need their parents and community to take care of them, despite the cost of energy, time and money.
A personal benefit of empathizing is that it will help us to attract friends. We like people who empathize with us. Decades of evidence show that people who empathize with others have more friends and experience greater happiness.

I don’t just try to execute my quest for kindness and empathy in my personal life. I also extend it to my professional life. I work hard on building a culture that makes people feel appreciated and safe. Where leaders are kind and enable their teams to learn and grow and use their potential. Even if that potential is greater than that of the leader itself. We should reward people for achieving great things together, for helping each other and for leveraging everyone’s strengths.

Zaki’s research confirms that this is a good strategy. Organizations that focus on kindness flourish, even when it comes to the bottom line. In 2012, Google found that its people-oriented teams were also their most successful teams.
For several decades people have believed that the best way to motivate employees is by offering them bonuses for individual excellence. While this may motivate some people, most people feel unhappy in an environment in which they constantly have to outdo their colleagues. It generates anxiety, fatigue, and hostility. It limits results and increases attrition. A rewards system that promotes cooperation, on the other hand, increases morale and productivity.

The second person who has influenced my thinking about empathy is Tim Minchin. This also started with his commencement speech in which he shares 9 life lessons. Number three is about empathy and being humble.
Remember, It’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
 
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
 
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
 
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

Tim Minchin’s idea that you can practice being empathic is in line with David Foster Wallace’s idea about actively thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s supported by Zaki’s research results.
A century ago, scientists were convinced the adult human brain was fixed. That it couldn’t grow or change. This also meant the assumption was that character and behavior was fixed. That it couldn’t be trained or adjusted. If you weren’t kind or empathic that was just who you were.
Part of who we are and how we behave is genetically determined. Studies have shown that empathy is about 30% genetically determined. For generosity, this is 60%. I guess that explains why my mum could have bitter discussions with my grandma about who was allowed to buy the other person dinner and why I have very similar discussions with my mum today.

If 30% of empathy is genetically determined this still leaves a lot of room for improvement through experience, training, and education. Our actions, inactions and life’s choices make a real difference. Education grows the brain, while stress causes atrophy. Empathy is a skill that you can improve on just like math, running, and weightlifting. People might start at different base levels, but their competency is by no means fixed.

Training to be empathic can be done by simply thinking about what you’re thinking. Feeling empathy is easier for someone you know personally than for the abstract concept of a group or a tribe. Especially if you don’t belong to that particular group. If you hate a specific group of people, getting to know someone from that group and being treated with kindness by that person can in some cases change your mind about the entire group. In the words of Mark Twain “Getting to know people and traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”.

People feel more empathy for others when they understand what they are going through. You can learn about other people and their circumstances in many different ways, but nowadays it can most realistically be experienced using Virtual Reality. Experiments show that people who have experienced a refugee camp through VR are more empathic towards refugees and are also willing to donate more money for relief efforts even months after their VR experience.

Actors pretend to be other people, which means that they have to think about what the person they are pretending to be thinks and feels. This is a form of practicing empathy. It’s therefore not surprising that students who train to be actors don’t only develop their acting talent, but also their empathy.
Reading and acting can be a way to practice empathy in safe environments, without judgment. Storytelling doesn’t just provide joy and amusement, it can also make people kinder!

I’m so fascinated by the impact that empathy can have and how you can learn to be more empathic that I could go on and on about it. I empathize with you, the reader though. I realize you have other (better) things to do besides reading this blog.
I do ask you to read or listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech and think about its contents.

If you are interested in empathy Jamil Zaki’s book is a very worthwhile read. In this post, I only touched upon a tiny little part of the topics that he discusses. If you are a parent, a caretaker, or if you work in medicine in one capacity or another the book contains some valuable insights that aren’t obvious. At least they weren’t to me.

Empathy is the mental superpower that can overcome the distance between two people. Empathy is personal, but it’s also collective. We are herd animals. We behave in the way we see people around us behaving. We observe others and copy parts of what they do and think. You only have to look at local accents to realize that this is true. Fortunately, we don’t just respond to norms, we also create them. Setting examples of kindness and empathy helps to let other people be more kind and emphatic too. Let’s create a trend together.

The Geneva Trap – excitement and beautiful scenery

I’ve read The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington this week. It’s the seventh book in the Liz Carlyle series and like the previous six, it didn’t disappoint. Liz is a tough and smart woman who works for MI5. She doesn’t let the men who work for any security agencies intimidate her. Using her wits and her intuition she plays an important role in solving the cases that she is involved in.

In The Geneva Trap, Peggy Kinsolving gets to play a bigger role than in the previous books in the series. Peggy has a background as a librarian. She joined MI6 after responding to a job advertisement because she was looking for a little bit more action than what she got in the library.

After working on a case with Liz Peggy transferred to MI5 and the two have worked together ever since.

I always assumed that the character of Liz Carlyle was based on Dame Stella, who is a former head of MI5. However, after listening to a podcast with Dame Stella, I feel that both Peggy and Liz were designed to resemble parts of their creator.

Reading the Liz Carlyle books is very relaxing during the week, but it generates more stress on Saturdays when I try to write my blog post.  There is not much to say about the book that I haven’t mentioned when writing about other books from the series. I also don’t want to give away any details about the story.

I, of course, recommend reading the book, as all Liz Carlyle novels are worth reading. I also recommend going to Lake Geneva. In this book, the main role of the lake is as a dumping place for dead bodies. In real-life though it’s absolutely stunning. Geneva is a nice city, but if you drive around the lake (or take a train) you’ll come across views that are breathtaking.

I was lucky enough to do a couple of days of consultancy work for a company that has its head office in Lausanne. The office has a rooftop terrace that looks out over the lake. The view was stunning. However difficult it is to do computer work in the sun, the inconvenience would be more than compensated by the inspiration that the view from that terrace would provide.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Montreux Jazz Festival once. We were there for the Prince concert, but for me, the highlight of the trip was the view from the balcony of the hotel room and the walks along the lake. (The concert was great, it just wasn’t as memorable as the views of the lake were for me.)

Montreux
Photo by Spencer Harbar, Triumph Media Limited

That’s enough holiday destination advertisements for one week I reckon. I’ll make sure to read a book that leaves me with more to write about next week.