Reading novels could encourage empathy by helping people form ideas about others' emotions, suggests new research.
July 19, 2016
It has been previously assumed that reading fiction is good for your mental health, but evidence linking Oliver Twist or Anna Karenina to a broadened mind has been mostly anecdotal.
Now, in a review published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a psychologist has delved further into the issue.
Keith Oatley, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development in Canada, argues that reading or watching narratives may encourage empathy.
He said that by exploring the inner lives of characters on the page, readers can form ideas about others' emotions, motives, and ideas, off the page.
Prof Oatley said the the intersection between literature and psychology has only taken off in the last few years.
He said: "There's a bit of a buzz about it now."
"In part, because researchers are recognising that there's something important about imagination."
He said the field's recent turn toward brain imaging studies has also made the academic climate open to such ideas."
One study cited in the review involved people being asked to imagine phrases such as "a dark blue carpet" or "an orange striped pencil" while in an MRI machine.
Prof Oatley said: "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."
"Writers don't need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader's imagination - they only need to suggest a scene."
Prof Oatley says reading fiction, and perhaps especially literary fiction, simulates a kind of social world, prompting understanding and empathy in the reader.
To measure this empathetic response, Prof Oatley's research group were the first to use the "Mind of the Eyes Test."
This involves participants viewing 36 photographs of people's eyes, and for each choose among four terms to indicate what the person is thinking or feeling.
The researchers found that reading narrative fiction gave rise to "significantly higher" scores than did reading non-fiction books. The association remained significant even after personality and individual differences were taken into account.
Prof Oatley said similar empathy-boosting effects have been found when participants watched fictional TV drama The West Wing, or played a video game with a narrative storyline.
He said that they involved "engagement with characters we can think about," and added: "The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social."
"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."
Prof Oatley said further studies have shown that narratives can even generate empathy for a race or culture that is dissimilar to one's own.
In one such study, readers of 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 faces.
Dr Oatley added: "Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called 'entertainment."
"I think there is also something more important going on."
"What's a piece of fiction, what's a novel, what's 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. That seems an exciting idea."