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Recent research into neuroscience both fascinates and frightens me.

It’s amazing that the human brain literally developed a new circuit 6,000 years ago to keep up with changes in society. As researcher Maryanne Wolf writes, the circuit evolved “from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain.” That’s the good news.

The frightening part is that research shows essential “deep reading” processes are possibly being lost as we move further into digital-based modes of reading. In other words, our reading circuit will adapt to the screens most of us use daily. As a UCLA psychologist writes, that means our brains eventually will pay less attention to “slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”

As a chaplain, I especially wonder how a lack of empathy might affect society. After all, “deep-reading” skills can help each of us learn, as a line from St. Ignatius’ prayer for generosity reads, “To give and to not count the cost.”

Yet today there are numerous examples of Bloomington-Normal residents expressing empathy, based on their generosity to those who are less fortunate. Scores of people are donating their time and talents, as well as monetary gifts, to help make our community a better place.

For example, our neighbors are helping build homes with Habitat for Humanity and serving at Midwest Food Bank, whose Bloomington center supplies 235 agencies in 29 eastern Illinois counties — serving more than 135,000 individuals each month. They are supporting Center for Hope, which offers free blood pressure screenings, a food pantry, the annual Joy of Giving holiday program for children and other programs.

Volunteers with faith groups all over our community also are working together through the Advocate BroMenn Delegate Church Association to stock a “compassion closet” with clothes for discharged patients needing something to wear; help nurture a community vegetable garden for patients of the Community Health Care Clinic; and pray for patients and specific health care units at Advocate BroMenn or Advocate Eureka.

These are only a few examples of how empathy is being expressed in our community — and each generous act makes me feel better about the future.

But those to whom I give birthday and other gifts still should probably expect to receive actual books from now on.

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McNeal is senior staff chaplain and coordinator for church relations at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. Contact her at


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