Reading a book might not just be a fun way to kill some time. According to a growing body of research, it can also make you better at understanding what other people are thinking and feeling.
When you start a new book, you’re invited to immerse yourself in a new world. Among other things, getting wrapped up in a literary work is about imaging an alternative universe and empathizing with the characters you’re reading about.
Based on this link between reading and empathizing, researchers have hypothesized that reading literary fiction could make you more attuned to what’s going on in other people’s minds off the page too – more able to read other people’s mental states, if you will.
Several studies have backed up this idea.
For example, a 2013 study found that reading literary fiction led people to do better on average on a test of theory of mind, the ability to make sense of what’s going on in other people’s heads. By contrast, reading nonfiction or popular fiction and not reading at all didn’t have any such benefits.
A meta-analysis of fMRI studies published a year earlier highlighted one finding related to what might be going on in the brain that connects reading and empathy. Specifically, parts of the brain involved in making sense of stories seem to overlap with parts of the brain involved in making sense of what others are thinking and feeling. The same study found that reading literary fiction and nonfiction can help people make small changes in their personalities.
More recently, a study published in PLoS One showed that reading literary fiction can temporarily increase people’s ability to infer what’s happening in the minds of others. Reading nonfiction and science fiction didn’t seem to have the same effect. The authors of the study suggested that recent findings linking reading and empathy could point to new treatments for autism and schizophrenia.
Of course, these studies are documenting a temporary effect, so it’s hard to say what the longer-term benefits of reading literary fiction are. But at the very least, reading a short novel now and then probably can’t hurt. Or better yet, read War and Peace – you’ll probably become a straight-up empath.
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