A growing body of research suggests that fiction can help readers become more empathetic, as they can see themselves in the stories' characters, Sarah Kaplan writes for the Washington Post's "Speaking of Science."
Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, recently conducted a review of research analyzing the psychological effects of fiction on readers. He found that fiction allows people to engage with characters, making them more empathetic.
"When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it's like being that person," Oatley says. "That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them."
A 2006 study that Oatley helped conduct revealed a connection between reading fiction and higher performance on empathy and social acumen tests. The first part of the study tested participants on how well they could recognize author names as a way to determine how many and what kinds of books participants had read. Participants were then scored on a test measuring empathy and one that gauges how well people can interpret other people's mental states. The study found that those who knew the most fiction writers had the highest social acumen scores.
While psychology has long been averse to studying fiction, according to Oatley, a great deal of research is making the case for the power of fiction. Psychologist Raymond Mar, who co-authored the 2006 study with Oatley, found that the parts of the brain associated with processing other people's thoughts and feelings lights up in an MRI machine when the reader is thinking through a story.
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While watching dramatic TV shows has also been shown to have similar effects as reading fiction, the type of story makes a difference in our ability to develop empathy. Research suggests that reading in-depth literary fiction, as opposed to nonfiction and genres such as science fiction, better allows people to imagine what another person might be thinking—a phenomenon known as theory of mind.
"Really, all art is metaphor," Oatley says. "When we read, we become Anna Karenina or Harry Potter... We understand them from the inside" (Kaplan, "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 7/22).
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