Reading Fiction May Boost Empathy

Reading novels may exert a powerful positive effect on our empathy levels, according to a psychologist-novelist who published a new review in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Study author Dr. Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, asserts that when we explore the inner lives of characters on the page, we form ideas about others’ emotions, motives, and beliefs, off the page.

This intersection between literature and psychology has only taken off in the last few years, says Oatley.

“There’s a bit of a buzz about it now,” he said. “In part, because researchers are recognizing that there’s something important about imagination.”

New information recently discovered by brain imaging studies has also made the academic climate open to these ideas, he adds. Oatley cites one study in which people were asked to imagine phrases (e.g., “a dark blue carpet,” “an orange striped pencil”) while in an fMRI machine.

“Just three such phrases were enough to produce the most activation of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory. This 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.”

Reading fiction, and perhaps especially literary fiction, simulates a kind of social world, prompting understanding and empathy in the reader, Oatley explains.

To measure this empathetic response, researcher Dr. Raymond Mar and others on the Toronto team led by Oatley were the first to use the “Mind of the Eyes Test,” in which participants view 36 photographs of people’s eyes, and for each choose among four terms to indicate what the person is thinking or feeling.

Participants who had recently read narrative fiction were more likely to get significantly higher scores than those who read nonfictional books. The link remained strong even after the researchers accounted for personality and individual differences.

Similar empathy-boosting effects were found among participants who watched the fictional television drama The West Wing, or played a video game with a narrative storyline — the first-person detective game Gone Home. What’s common across these media is the “engagement with characters we can think about,” says Oatley.

“The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social,” says Oatley. “What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people — with friends, with lovers, with children — that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.”

Research has also shown that narratives can even generate empathy for a different race or culture. In one such study, participants who had read the fictional story “Saffron Dreams” by Shaila Abdullah (which focuses on the experience of a Muslim woman in New York) were found to have a reduced bias in the perception of Arab and Caucasian faces compared to control subjects who read a non-narrative passage.

Researchers in this new field of narrative fiction psychology still have a lot to explore. For example, there are questions surrounding the role of storytelling in human evolution.

“Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called ‘entertainment,'” Oatley said. “I think there is also something more important going on.”

What is happening in the brain when we take on the view of another person? There’s also the question of how long a narrative’s empathy-boosting effects last.

“What’s a piece of fiction, what’s a novel, what’s a short story, what’s a play or movie or television series? It’s a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you’re reading or watching a drama, you’re taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own,” said Oatley. “That seems an exciting idea.”

Source: Cell Press