Becoming Napoleon

“…while we read a novel, we are insane-bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” (Ursula Le Guin)

Becoming Napoleon has never been of particular interest to me, however I have felt a certain level of transformation with regard to, say, Beatrice Prior, or Tris as she would prefer. One could argue that artists have magic powers so to speak. They know what it takes to cast a transformation or teleportation spell, throwing their various audiences into another world that they have created. Veronica Roth did just that for me with her book Divergent. I could see myself residing in a world divided into factions; the factions of candor, amity, dauntless, abnegation, and erudite. These factions created in order to save the world from ending; factions negating greed, cowardice, deceit, aggression and ignorance.

I was Tris. I wore all black, got a few tattoos, and ran alongside a moving train and jumped in order to board it. I learned how to fight, fell in love with a genuine and fascinating boy, and had a strong aversion to corrupt authority. I asked myself, why should I have to choose one character trait? Why can’t I be honest, brave, peaceful, selfless and intelligent? Then I closed the book and had to be present in my reality.

I had to complete a homework assignment, get ready for work the next day, and take care of my dog. I remembered that I can’t wear all black because my friends will instruct me to add more color to my wardrobe. I remembered that I don’t live in a world divided into factions, even though it sometimes seems that way. I realized that I don’t have to choose one good character trait. I can strive to be honest, peaceful, brave, intelligent, and selfless; but I won’t always achieve all of these because I’m human and not perfect as a result. Most importantly, I remembered that I’m blind and cannot run alongside a moving train and leap as a form of boarding, because that would most likely result in a leap to my death.

This is not the only book so captivating and transforming. I have read countless books that possess this power; from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice to the romance novels that are totally my guilty pleasure. I have heard speeches and lectures, read articles and posts, and watched television shows that have either made me feel like I was there or transformed me into that character or person. In fact, I binge watched all of How I Met Your Mother and entered into that incredibly relatable world. For a moment, they were my fictional friends. There is psychological science behind this, I promise. Please don’t question my sanity, or do.

Psychologists refer to 2 different phenomenons that demonstrate what I’ve deemed the teleportation and transformation spells. Psychologists consider transformation spells to be the phenomenon of experience taking and the teleportation spells to be the phenomenon of perspective taking. Experience taking involves subconsciously losing yourself in a character and can result in behavioral or cognitive change.

For instance, one study had straight male participants read a story about a character who identified as gay. They either read a story where the character was revealed to be gay early on in the story or later on in the story. Those who did not find out that the character was gay until later in the story engaged in higher levels of experience taking. As a result, they also had more favorable attitudes toward gay people. This study also works if you replace the gay person with an ethnic minority. It seems like the participants were able to identify with the human traits of the character prior to slapping a label on the person. It is possible that the combination of the late reveal and established empathy influenced previously held positive, negative or neutral biases.

This is the power of empathy. Perspective taking is similar to experience taking. They both involve empathy but perspective taking is less immersive. Perspective taking involves understanding another person’s situation without losing site of your own identity. Our capacity for empathy lies in our right supramarginal gyrus. In empaths this part of the brain is high functioning and it is low functioning in sociopaths; and then there are those of us that fall in between the opposite ends of the spectrum. What is it that triggers this part of the brain? Maybe it is our environment. Maybe it is our biology. Maybe it is both.

I say all of this to say this:

Artists are so powerful. Maybe they are teaching their audiences how to tap into their capacity for empathy; your capacity to understand a person as if you were that person. So, “is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?” (Ursula Le Guin)

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