Reading Fiction Increases Your Empathy and Understanding of Others
The brain of fiction readers is wired differently.
Empathy is in decline. A study looked at tests that measured empathy from 1979 to 2009. Verdict? Researchers saw a sharp decline of 48% in overall scores. And this decline doesn’t even include the last decade. If it did, the drop would probably be more significant.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in people’s shoes; to challenge your beliefs and biases. Without it, humankind probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. So how can you have more empathy toward others? The answer, it turns out, is simpler than you think: read more fiction books.
Yes, reading fiction. More and more scientists believe that the world is a better place if people read more fiction. After all, stories are perfect to step outside your head and get into others minds.
Through fictional characters, you get to sample across a wide range of people. You’ll know what it’s like to be a selfless mother, a selfish leader, someone with big dreams, someone with no dreams, a person with endless privilege, a poor fellow with nothing to show for. “When reading novels, we become better at understanding other people and their points of view,” says Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at Toronto University.
The benefits of reading fiction start early. Before they even learn how to read, children listen to bedtime stories. It turns out, kids who know lots of stories are more likely to be rated as empathetic by teachers. School children whose parents know many children’s books score best on empathy tests. The authors of one of these studies conclude:
“There are various relations between aspects of storybook reading and early development.”
“Storybook reading links to a child’s language ability, child’s empathy and emotional skills.”
In simple terms, children who listen to bedtime stories improve their language, become more friendly and will grow into well-adjusted adults.
In teenagers and young adults, reading fiction books lowers stigma and bias. For example, high school students become more empathetic towards immigrants and refugees after reading Harry Potter. According to the study authors, a possible explanation is that, in the world of the young wizard, people with no magic are discriminated against. So students get to understand how someone with less privilege can suffer.
Fiction slows the urge to stereotype and judge people from different cultures. In another study, researchers asked college students to read a novel or a history book. The novel was about a Middle Eastern woman who moves to New York and is the victim of racist attacks. The history book was about automobiles.
Next, researchers showed participants pictures of angry faces. Subjects had to guess if faces were white or middle-eastern, or mixed. Those who read the history book had a clear racial bias. They linked most angry faces to Middle Eastern ethnicity. Those who read the fiction novel showed no such bias.
Reading fiction makes you perform better on empathy and social intelligence tests. One such test is the Mind of the Eyes. This test measures a person’s ability to detect emotions by looking into another person’s eyes. Usually, you get to look at photos of people’s eyes. Then, you have to match each image to an emotion such as thoughtful, sad, anxious, etc. Data shows that the more fiction participants read, the higher their Mind of the Eyes test scores.
Your brain literally changes when you read a compelling story. In a study, researchers tasked college students to read Pompeii. This historical fiction revolves around a man desperate to save his wife as a volcano destroys their city. For several days, the students progressively read the book. At the same time, they underwent regular brain scans.
In looking at the brain scans, researchers were stunned. They noticed heightened activity in brain regions linked to movement and sensations. Such changes mean you can connect with a character in such a way that your brain thinks you’re in the character’s body, moving and feeling their world. What’s even more surprising is these effects are visible for many days after a reader finishes a book.
Not all fiction is the same. Studies show that literary fiction trumps all genres in making you more empathetic. That’s because literary fiction places greater emphasis on character development. Works such as Don Quixote, The Great Gatsby, 1984, and The Count of Monte Cristo take you into the characters’ psyche and emotional states. In contrast, thrillers and fiction-crime are more plot-driven. As a result, they might be not as effective as literary fiction in honing your empathetic skills.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” — George R. R. Martin
When you read fiction, you experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, political identity, profession, age, social status, or even species. You peek into what it’s like to lose someone, go to war, live in poverty, suffer a disability, or leave your country to a foreign land. Such experiences help you relate to more people in real life.
Social and political divides are more prominent than ever. Democrats vs republicans, conservatives vs socialists, left vs right. Empathy is on shaky ground. Yet, if each of us spends some time reading works of fiction, perhaps this can bring us closer and lead to more understanding of one another.
I hope you learned something useful. If you like this week's post, please share it with a friend or a family member.
Until next Thursday :)