Studies Show How Reading Fictional Books Can Boost Our Empathy

Interested in boosting your empathy levels? There may be a pretty simple, yet satisfying way to do so. Reading novels may just be the answer, according to a psychologist-novelist, the publisher behind Trends In Cognitive Science.

shutterstock_92229586Dr. Keith Oatley, the study author and professor emeritus of the University of Toronto – Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development strongly suggests that we deeply explore the characters on the page, forming ideas about others, their emotions, motives and beliefs, even off the page. This balance or “interaction” between literature and nature is relatively new according to 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.”

Brain imaging studies have unearthed new information, enabling the academic climate open to new ideas, citing a study where people were asked to imagine phrases like “an orange dotted cat or a green house” while in a 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.”

shutterstock_126391907Literary fiction is particularly stimulating, prompting us to understand and feel empathy.

Measuring this empathetic response, researcher Dr. Raymond Mar and a few others were lead by no other than Oatley, who were the first to use the “Mind of the Eye Test”. Participants were shown 36 images of people’s eyes.

They had to choose among them, one of the four terms offered to decipher what they were thinking and feeling.

Those who had recently read narrative fiction were significantly more empathetic, scoring much higher, the link remaining strong even after the researchers accounted for varying personalities and individualities between them.

Similar findings were evident in those who watched fictional television drama, The West Wing. Even those who played a video game with a narrative background – the first person detective game Gone Home. The common link was the engagement noted between the participants and the characters.shutterstock_261376148

“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.”

According to research, narratives can also generate empathy between races and cultures. Participants were asked to read the fictional story “Saffron Dreams” by Shaila Abdullah.

(The book focuses on a Muslim woman in New York). The results were quite something – the general bias where the perception of Arab and Caucasian  faces was reduced when compared to control subjects who had read non-narrative passages.

There is still much to learn regarding narrative fiction psychology and many questions surrounding the role of storytelling in human evolution which have been left unanswered.


“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.”

So what is really going on? What happens to the brain when we take of the view of another person? One is left wondering how long the effects would last after reading an empathy boosting piece?

“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.”

Thank you Psych Central for the inspiration behind this article

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