our summertime reading list may be doing more than just providing some much-needed diversion — it may be improving your empathy.
“Fiction might be the mind’s flight simulator,” Keith Oatley wrote in a new review of the research on reading and mental health, published Tuesday in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Research into the psychological impact of literature suggests that when we read stories in which characters are rich and developed, we actually slip into those characters ourselves. By taking on these other personalities, we learn what it’s like to be someone else, and improve our own social skills.
The type of reading matters, Oatley and his colleagues at the University of Toronto have found. Books that emphasize plot do not have the same benefits as those that focus on character development, and fiction provides more of a boost than nonfiction.
But any good story — whether fiction or nonfiction, portrayed in a book, movie, or video game — will likely boost empathy if it provides insight into another person, Oatley said. For instance, watching “The West Wing” made subjects perform higher on a subsequent test of reading people’s feelings from their faces than did watching a documentary. Similarly, subjects who played a narrative video game showed more empathy afterward if they focused on the characters than if they focused on the technical elements of the game.
Another study showed that high schoolers became less racist after reading about Harry Potter’s efforts to vanquish the “dark side” with its prejudices against those who lack wizard ancestry from both parents.
The lead author of that study, Loris Vezzali, said that when readers are truly transported into a story, they essentially become the characters they are reading about, absorbing the character’s experiences into their own.
“You don’t just learn new way of interacting. In your mind, you are the different characters that are playing,” said Vezzali, a professor of social psychology at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.
Research has shown that it is the act of reading that leads to these improvements, not that people who are more empathetic are more likely to read literary fiction. But what’s not yet clear is whether the benefits of literary reading last longer than a week or two, Oatley said.