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From the desk of the Head Master 15 June 2018

Empathy and Reading

Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaeans.

This week saw national Empathy Day, a relatively new venture which was first piloted last year and is set to become an annual event. After several interesting pastoral initiatives over the course of the year, this is not something we have particularly marked. Mercifully, rather than presaging government initiatives for schools to introduce ‘empathy lessons’, it was interesting and heartening to note the strong focus on the power of books and reading to help build empathy, something I know we all try to encourage throughout the year, and something that is increasingly supported by some pretty robust research.

We probably all instinctively know already that reading fiction helps us to practise social skills by engaging with the emotions of various characters, developing our understanding of other people's feelings, forcing us to stand in someone else's shoes and experience the world from their perspective. Yet, in recent years, neuroscientists have used brain imaging technology to demonstrate that, when you read a story, your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level. In one study, subjects were made to read about Harry Potter flying on his broomstick; brain scans revealed that exactly the same regions lit up as those would be involved in perceiving other people's motion, gripping a stick, or balancing. Psychologists have also conducted numerous experiments showing that good literature improves social empathy, actually enabling subjects to identify emotions in others more effectively (I say good literature, because the research demonstrated a distinction between literary fiction, specifically Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov, and popular fiction, namely Danielle Steel!).

Over the last few weeks, I have been battling my way through the Iliad (in translation, obviously). I enjoyed it enormously as a bookish 18 year old, but wanted to re-read it, even if I should admit to finding it a little harder going now. There are, however, certain passages that I have found profoundly moving. The opening lines, above, and other passages dealing with the ‘accursed rage of Achilles’ are, undoubtedly, lighting up the parts of my brain that experience feelings of blind anger or rage. Then there is the gorgeous passage in book 6 which arouses both sorrow and tenderness simultaneously. During a break from the fighting, Hector goes back to the city to see his wife and baby (we already know, of course, that all three are ultimately doomed). The boy does not recognise his armour-clad father and is terrified by the sight. Thousands of years after the lines were written, I wonder if this still conveys a sense of what it is like for a child to see a soldier towering above them and, with Father’s Day upon us, something of the love and warmth that even the most hardened warrior might feel for his child:

So speaking, glorious Hector reached out to take his son. But the child shrank back, crying against the breast of his girdled nurse, terrified at the sight of his own father, frightened by the bronze and the crest of horse-hair, as he saw it nodding dreadfully from the top of the helmet. His dear father and his honoured mother laughed aloud at this, and glorious Hector took the helmet straight from his head and laid it gleaming bright on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son and dandled him in his arms, and spoke in prayer to Zeus and the other gods.