Reading a good novel can be an intensely personal experience, as the characters, settings, and plots stir our minds and, at times, our hearts. Over the years, psychologists have found ways to quantify these subjective events to see how they affect our minds.
We know that the more people read, the better their verbal skills, including their vocabulary. It’s not too surprising. Now, however, there is growing evidence to suggest that reading literary fiction expands our minds and improves our ability to empathize with others. A good book, in short, can make you a better person.
“Literary fiction works best, especially fiction where the character is at the center of what it’s about,” says Keith Oatley, a professor at the University of Toronto and author of a new review research on fiction and mental health published this month in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. “Mrs. Dalloway,” for example, takes us on a turbulent day in the life of a dissatisfied upper-class housewife. an African-American man growing up in the mid-1900s.
More than a decade ago, graduate students in Oatley’s lab began a series of experiments to determine if reading fiction could help people understand themselves. They and others have found that fiction, especially narrative fiction, directly improves social skills, such as reducing prejudice and improving the ability to understand the beliefs, desires, and intentions of others. Brain scanning experiments then confirmed these findings, showing how vivid images and stories activate the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotions.
Oatley attributes this empathy to fiction’s ability to simulate the social world. As we immerse ourselves in a story involving complex characters and unfamiliar circumstances, it’s like working through a simulation, where we absorb and practice new perspectives and emotions. We experience what it is like to be someone else.
Above all, literary fiction has helped us understand the human rights of others, Oatley says, enhancing our empathy for people in parts of the world we may never visit, who seem different from us. For example, in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, we trace the life of a Pakistani living in America, which he ends up abandoning. Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto” (a favorite of this writer) finds us at a birthday party in South America, where a Japanese translator and a young terrorist fall in love during a hostage negotiation. .
Different types of fiction can provide different social simulations, Oatley says. Romances guide us through how a person chooses a partner, like in “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes. Mystery stories, on the other hand, involve navigating relationships between the self and an antagonist, as in the work of mystery writer PD James or thriller author Ruth Rendell, says Oatley.
But don’t worry if you’re not a big reader: studies have also shown better empathy after watching TV shows, such as “The West Wing” and “The Good Wife”, and video games where viewers become emotionally involved in a story. .
“Fiction doesn’t just pass the time,” says Oatley. “It has societal implications for how we as human beings live with each other, how we understand each other.”