Reading and Understanding

Play episode
Photo by Seven Shooter

Liz Waid and Bruce Gulland look at how reading can help people understand each other. Can reading make us better people?

Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2  

And I’m Bruce Gulland. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1  

Alone in her room, a young girl sits down and begins reading a book. The book is a very famous one. It is called “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” It tells the story of Cassie Logan and her family. They live in the United States in the 1930s. And they are African Americans. In those times, the state of Mississippi had a severe problem with racism. The government allowed people to make life difficult for African Americans, and people with darker skin colour. Often, groups of white men killed black men and women without punishment. It was a very frightening time.

Voice 2  

But the young girl does not know this. She knows little about American history. She is growing up many years later, in the 1970s. The situation in the United States has improved. But reading the book helps the young girl understand Cassie Logan’s fear, and her other emotions. The girl reading is white. She lives in a very small town, where there are no black people. But the book helps her see what it is like to be different. When she finishes the book, she is crying. That night, she tells herself she will never judge another person by what they look like. The book has changed her life. Today’s Spotlight is on how reading can help people understand each other.

Voice 1  

There is a name for the emotion the girl felt while reading the book. It is empathy. There are two different kinds of empathy. The first lets people sense other people’s emotions. It is what happens when we feel sad because another person is sad. Or it helps us understand that a person is angry, even when they will not say.

Voice 2  

The second kind of empathy is called cognitive empathy. This is what happens when a person reads a book. Cognitive empathy happens when a person tries to identify and understand another person’s emotions. Some people even imagine that they are the other person. There is even an old English idiom for cognitive empathy: taking a walk in another person’s shoes. It means to imagine that you have lived their life.

Open book in daylight
Photo by Jose Pablo Garcia
Voice 1  

Scientists do not yet know exactly what happens in a person’s brain when they feel empathy. It is a very complex process. But scientists have observed it happening. They believe empathy involves a brain cell called a mirror neuron. These cells work when we observe other people. Mirror neurons send messages through the brain. This is called “firing”. When these cells fire, they help us to identify emotions we see. But the same kind of cell also fires when we HAVE that emotion. So, when we are sad, a mirror cell will fire. But when we see someone who is sad, that same cell fires. We can understand an emotion. And through mirror neurons, we feel that emotion ourselves.

Voice 2  

Empathy is very important in society. Without empathy we would not help each other. We would not care for each other. As a feeling, empathy makes us want to help. It makes us want the world to be a better place.

Voice 1  

Barack Obama is the former president of the United States. In 2006, he made a speech to the graduates of Northwestern University. He described how empathy influences how people act.

Voice 3  

“Think of a child who is hungry or the steel worker who no longer has a job. Or think of the family whose home was destroyed by a storm. When you have empathy, it does not matter if they are close friends or far-away strangers. It is difficult not to act. It is hard not to help.”

Voice 2  

Most people have empathetic feelings. But people can train themselves to be more empathetic. However, this takes work. Meeting people who are different than we are is one way to gain empathy. But distance often divides people. So it is difficult for people to understand each other when they never meet.

Voice 1  

Reading may be a solution for this. The girl who read “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry”, did not know any African Americans. But the book helped her understand the life of a person who was. Cassie Logan was not a real person. But her situation was real. And the girl understood Cassie’s feelings. From the book, the girl learned a little of what it was to be African American. She felt like she could understand.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor
Voice 2  

David Kidd is a psychologist. He studies the science of how people behave. Kidd works at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 2012, he helped show that reading increases empathy. In a test, he made people read different kinds of books. Some of these books were literary fiction, or complex invented stories. These stories made people think about the emotions of the characters in them. After reading these literary fiction books, the people were better able to understand what other people were thinking. And they could more easily identify emotions.

Voice 1  

Keith Oatley is another psychologist. He also studies how reading connects to empathy. He tells the Washington Post newspaper,

Voice 4  

“When we read about other people, we can imagine that we are in their position. We can imagine what it’s like being that person. That lets us better understand people and to work together better.”

Voice 2  

Many studies say that the effect of reading on empathy only works for complex fictional, or invented, stories. That is because this kind of writing concentrates on a character’s thoughts and feelings. This helps the reader to feel like they are inside the character’s head and thoughts. This produces the effect that leads to empathy.

Voice 1  

Today, many scientists believe that books are good tools for increasing empathy. But for readers, and many writers, this is not a new discovery. Together, they have made and explored new worlds and places. They have looked at how different people think and live. Stories have taken them places they may have never gone before.

Voice 2  

Have you ever read a book that changed you? How did it make you feel? Tell us about your experiences. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at You can also comment on our Facebook page – just search for Spotlight Radio.

Voice 1  

The writer of this programme was Dan Christmann. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this programme and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This programme is called ‘Reading and Understanding.’

Voice 2  

Look for our free listening app in the Google Play store and in iTunes. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight programme. Goodbye.


Have you ever read a book that changed you? What is your favorite kind of book to read? Write your answer in the comments below.

Join the discussion

  • I’m still reading books that changed who I am, and my favorite kind of books are about self-development, for example: “The courage to be disliked”

  • My hobby is read books. My favorite kind of book to read is novel and help-self. In the present, I read the book called Hai so phan. The kind of book is a novel. I recommend you read it

  • On occasion, I read novels or some short stories on Facebook, a sad story will make me feel sad and possibly cry, but a positive story will make me feel happy and probably laugh. I enjoy immersing myself in each story and feeling the emotions of the characters: empathy hepls me better understand what the author is trying to say and feel all of the emotions

  • Well, reading is a way to get into the lives and stories of others. It allows you to glance through the perception of someone, apart from yourself, through those words.
    Reading may or may not make you a more empathetic person. However, it depends on which books you read. Some books were written specifically in order to deter the reader from becoming more empathetic.

  • Hello.. The book that I read daily is the Qur’an. The Qur’an is full of stories of previous peoples and the way the prophets called these peoples. It made me understand the feelings of despair, frustration and fear for these prophets and their difficult lives and gives me the energy to go through this life.

  • Yes , I read a sport book about what the player feel when he be in stadium . My favorit kinds of book l like to read them are scientific book about engineering and science

  • I love read a (legal books) because I want to improve my personal skills to get a lawyer job.
    I remember reading a book called The seven Habits it really help me in my life. Because I become created a new good habits in my life.

  • The reading books can make you anther kind of you and can make you important kind of yourself ☺️
    The book can you ad Life to you live.I believe that reading books can change the world and make the ears better than now .
    We should make big libraries in our communities Instead of big wor buildings .

  • My favourite kind of books are self_development books Actually I am a new reader and I am enjoying by reading it’s develop me thanks spotlight for these amazing podcasts

  • I love reading books since I was a child. I have read many books and I only found the most impressive one when I was 25. The series of books that changed my thought at first, then changed my actions and my whole life. There are 6 books of FOUNDATIONS OF MORALITY in the series written by Ph.D of Law – Ven. Thich Chan Quang. The books tell stories and give readers idea about virtues human should have and how to cultivate them in real life. They are bilingual books which are written in Vietnamese and English. Since then, I love reading books about morality because morality is extremely important. Human civilization is based on social relationships and technology, but people could take advantages from each other and use technology to damage the world if they don’t have morality. I truly hope people all around the world can leave their selfishness and their competition to live in peace, respect and love.
    I’m so grateful to the team building and developing!
    Best wishes.

  • I like this episode also, my hobby is reading so I read a lot of books, and if I talk about the book that changed my life and my emotion is (letting go )by David R. Hawkins is an excellent book I recommend to reading it to live a good life.

  • I HAVE read a book called (الهالة المقدسة) and this book changed my feelings alot .My favorite kind of book is educational book .

  • I had read White Fang, and he was a wolfdog. I felt the pain he had as he battled other animals. I also felt the love he feltwhen he met his 3rd master. Unlike the other owners, he was gentle.

  • I had read White Fang, and he was a wolfdog. I felt the pain he had as he battled other animals. I also felt the love he feltwhen he met his 3rd master. Unlike the other owners, he was gentle. He was so nice!

  • I rarely read books so I have yet to find the book that changed my life. I understand reading is very useful, so I will try to spend more time reading books.

  • Sometimes, I read a book when I’m not good feeling. The funny stories and famous people are my favorite kind of book to read. I don’t like the novels because they’re too long and sadness stories. Until now, there is no book effect or change me. I think reading a lot of book will get more knowledges and skills of the life.

  • I really love reading books and learning language , thank you so much for this programme , It helps so much for me and all of people on the world.

  • yes, I read the Quran and feel As if I had never lived before I read it, Yes, it is a particular book. Feelings from another world. Yes, it is from God

  • Yes i had .
    The favorite kind of book for me to read is the Psychology and self development.

More from this show

Episode 1