Reading a good novel can be an intensely personal experience, as characters, settings, and plots arouse our minds and, sometimes, hearts. Over the year, psychologists have found ways to quantify those subjective events to see how they affect our minds.
We know that the more people read, the better their verbal skills, including their vocabulary. That’s not too surprising. Now, however, mounting evidence suggests that reading literary fiction broadens 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 the center of what it’s all about,” says University of Toronto professor Keith Oatley, author of a new review of research on fiction and mental health published this month in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Virginia Woolf’s ”Mrs. Dalloway,” for example, has us contemplate a turbulent day in the life of a dissatisfied upper-class housewife. Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” leads us through the shifting relationships and identities of 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 exploring whether reading fiction could help people understand each other. They and others found that fiction, especially narrative fiction, directly improves social skills, such as reducing bias and improving the ability to understand others’ beliefs, desires, and intentions. Brain scanning experiments later supported those findings, showing how vivid imagery and stories activate the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotion.
Oatley attributes that boost in empathy to fiction’s ability to simulate the social world. As we become immersed in a story involving complex characters and unfamiliar circumstances, it is like working through a simulation, where we absorb and practice new perspectives and emotions. We experience what it’s like to be someone else.
Importantly, literary fiction has helped us understand the human rights of others, says Oatley, improving our empathy toward people in parts of the world we may never visit, who seem different than ourselves. For example, in Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” we wade through the life of a Pakistani man living in America, which he eventually abandons. Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto” (a personal 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, says Oatley. Romances guide us through how a person picks a partner, such as in Jojo Moyes’s “Me Before You.” Mystery stories, on the other hand, involve navigating the relations between oneself and an antagonist, as in the work of crime writer P.D. James or thriller author Ruth Rendell, says Oatley.
But don’t worry if you’re not a big reader: Studies have also demonstrated improved empathy after watching television shows, such as “The West Wing” and “The Good Wife,” and video games where viewers become emotionally involved in a story.
“Fiction isn’t just passing the time,” says Oatley. “It has societal implications about how we as human beings live with each other, how we understand each other.”