Reading Fictional Novels Can Make You More Empathetic

First Posted: Jul 21, 2016 06:30 AM EDT

For readers, there is nothing more interesting that reading a well written fiction novel. They say it's one way of boosting their imagination and an escape to a stressful life. However, that's not the only thing reading fiction novels can apparently do. One psychologist said that fiction has the ability to encourage empathy.

The Guardian reported a past study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York had proven that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to understand and identify people's emotions, which is a critical skill in handling complicated relationships.

Now, Keith Oatley of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, Canada, discusses how fiction may impact a person's social skills. He also studied findings from previous studies which traced the connection. Oatley also talked about a study he conducted himself that probed on how fiction affects readers' empathy.

According to Oatley, researchers have developed an increased interest in how fiction might affect the mind. "There's a bit of a buzz about it now," he says. "In part, because researchers are recognizing that there's something important about imagination."

Medical News Today also reported Oatley also saying that that interest was boosted by increasing the brain imaging in the field of psychology. He discussed one study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to check the brain's response to imagination-inducing phrases, such as "a dark blue carpet" or an "orange-striped pencil."

"Just three such phrases were enough to produce the most activation of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory. These points to the power of the reader's own mind," says Oatley. "Writers don't need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader's imagination - they only need to suggest a scene," he added.

In the review, Oatley talked about the results of a specific study he and his colleagues did which analyzed how fiction can affect a reader's empathy in daily life.

Explaining the reasons for exploring this association, Oatley pointed out that fiction is a "simulation of social worlds," and "similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills. Fiction might be the mind's flight simulator."

Because of that, empathy may be considered a social skill that can be improved through fiction.

For the study, Oatley and his team asked a number of people to fill out the "Mind in the Eyes Test," which Oatley describes as "an index of empathy and theory-of-mind that is not based on narrative; therefore, effects cannot be explained by verbal competencies."

Subjects were also asked to look at 36 pictures of people's eyes and choose one of four phrases they believe most likely matched what the person was thinking or feeling. The terms were: "reflective," "aghast," "irritated," or "impatient."

Oatley and his team found that the subjects who read fictional books had much higher test scores, which meant that they also have a much higher level of empathy than those who read non-fictional books. The finding remained the same after considering individual differences in personality and other characteristics.

The study from Oatley and colleagues is not the first to associate literary fiction with increased empathy.

There was also another study that suggested that literary fiction is not the only one to increase the level of empathy in a person. Oatley explained that one study indicated an improved empathetic response among participants who watch fictional TV drama. However, the results were not the same when participants watched TV documentaries, reported.

See Now: NASA's Juno Spacecraft's Rendezvous With Jupiter's Mammoth Cyclone

©2017 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission. The window to the world of science news.

Join the Conversation

Real Time Analytics