an excerpt from the article:
The unsettling reality, however, is that unbeknownst to many of us, including until recently myself, there has begun an unanticipated decline of empathy among our young people. The MIT scholar Sherry Turkle described a study by Sara Konrath and her research group at Stanford University that showed a 40 percent decline in empathy in our young people over the last two decades, with the most precipitous decline in the last ten years. Turkle attributes the loss of empathy largely to their inability to navigate the online world without losing track of their real-time, face-to-face relationships. In her view our technologies place us at a remove, which changes not only who we are as individuals but also who we are with one another.
and another excerpt:
These studies are the beginning of increasing work on the place of empathy and perspective taking in the neuroscience of literature. The cognitive scientist Keith Oatley, who studies the psychology of fiction, has demonstrated a strong relationship between reading fiction and the involvement of the cognitive processes known to underlie both empathy and theory of mind. Oatley and his York University colleague Raymond Mar suggest that the process of taking on another’s consciousness in reading fiction and the nature of fiction’s content—where the great emotions and conflicts of life are regularly played out—not only contribute to our empathy, but represent what the social scientist Frank Hakemulder called our “moral laboratory.”
I don't think it comes as a surprise to most readers that reading and placing oneself in the role of another person, with all that entails, creates understanding from a perspective different from our own. That it works on the brain, creating new networks shouldn't be a surprise, after all, athletes know that "imagining" their performances is as important as practice in producing a result.
I don't think that this decline is limited to young people, however. Fear of "the other" has risen in the last couple of years and fear often results in a lack of willingness to put ourselves in another's situation.
However, it perhaps more incumbent than ever to choose books that are both interesting and thoughtful for our children and to encourage them as they grow to read books that will give them insight into lives that are quite different from their own.