Literature, particularly fictional works, compel the reader to ‘brood upon’ and ‘dwell with’ the story. Similarly, personal accounts—whether delivered in a novel, autobiography, or memoir—are imbued with humanity and immediacy, making them relevant and purposeful (Penson, 2011). They create an emotional resonance and enhance reader’s capacity to reflect on what other people are thinking and feeling (Darbyshire, 2006). Stories invite readers to enter into imagined worlds, travelling through time and across distance; helping us understand what it is to be old or young, male or female, black or white. A well-written literary work presents multiple perspectives and world views and frees us from the constraints of self, our assumptions and our biases. At the same time, it introduces us to the psychology of characters, their relationships and their introspective dialogues (Forna, 2018). Appreciating the nuance, symbolism and deeper layers of meaning in a story can promote emotional engagement and cause readers to care deeply about an issue (McAllister, Lasater, Stone & Levett-Jones, 2015). One of the great powers of literature is that it allows us to walk [for a while] in ‘other people’s shoes’, and at the same time causes us to reflect on our own situations, beliefs, behaviours and prejudices (Stone & Levett-Jones, 2014).
A body of healthcare research supports the assertion that literature improves aesthetic knowledge and promotes empathic imagination and perspective taking (Saunders & Kowalski, 2015). Stories, as a teaching and learning medium, capture the learner’s attention, heighten their awareness of emotional issues, and develop their reflective skills. Good literary works do more than provide a story; they enhance understanding of the lived experience of people who may be very different from ourselves, and they improve the capacity for responding to others with unconditional positive regard (Stebnicki, 2007).
Patient experience book clubs (see https://medhum.med.nyu.edu/magazine/?p=11733) have emerged as strategies to help healthcare professionals to reflect on the meaning of empathy and how it informs their practice. In healthcare education, book clubs (see Butell, O’Donovan, Doughty Taylor, 2004) can provide opportunities for learners to engage with the narrative of health and human experience, rather than just the clinical problem (Penson, 2011). The use of literature in this way help students develop empathy and qualities such as dignity and respect. When the use of an entire book is not practical, book chapters and excerpts can also be used in creative ways to enhance students’ capacity to pause, think, reflect, and reconsider their world views.
There is sometimes a perception among educators that it is difficult to integrate content drawn from humanities and narrative sources into more mainstream (and often overflowing) curricula. However, it is likely that if such learning were consistently valued alongside clinical skills and content, it would not replace scientific approaches and knowledge but would complement it in meaningful and powerful ways (Penson, 2011).
Butell, S. O’Donovan, P. & Doughty Taylor, J. (2004). Instilling the value of reading literature through student-led book discussion groups. Journal of Nursing Education. 43(1),40-44.
Darbyshire, P. (2006). Understanding caring through arts and humanities: a medical/nursing humanities approach to promoting alternative experiences of thinking and learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 19, 856-863.
Forna, A. (2018). Selective empathy: Stories and the power of narrative. Puterbaugh Essay Series. Accessed September 2018: https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/november/selective-empathy-stories-and-power-narrative-aminatta-forna
McAllister, M., Lasater, K., Stone, T. & Levett-Jones, T. (2015). The reading room: Exploring the use of literature as a strategy for integrating threshold concepts into nursing curricula. Nurse Education in Practice. 15(6), 549-555.
Penson, W. (2011). Using book clubs in higher education. Hektoen International Journal, 3(3).
Saunders, M. & Kowalski, S. (2015). Using poetry writing and sharing to promote student empathy and caring. Holistic Nursing Practice, 29(6), 381-384.
Stebnicki, (2007). Empathy fatigue: healing the mind, body and spirit of professional counsellors. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation. 10, 317-338.
Stone, T. & Levett-Jones, T. (2014). A comparison of three types of stimulus material in undergraduate mental health nursing education. Nurse Education Today. 34, 586-591.