Answering the question why read literature? is a recurring theme on this blog. That’s one reason I’ve chosen “How Fiction Reading Affects Empathy” by Aaron Schutz on the Education Policy Blog for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:
We have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.
The post points to a set of neurological studies that develop this idea further. The author of the article “Changing Our Minds…By Reading Fiction,” Dr. Keith Oatley, writes this:
But is the idea of fiction being good for you merely wishful thinking? […] Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.
Oatley describes fiction as a simulation of the mind, one which allows us to construct the state of another person’s mind. He says empathy requires a similar simulation.
Oatley and the other psychologists in his research group surveyed what type of books (nonfiction or fiction) participants read and then gave two tests measuring perception and interpretation of social situations. Fiction readers scored higher on both tests. A related study suggested that reading fiction can actually alter an individual’s personality.
Of course, the results of any study can be skewed or contain alternative explanations or relationships between data. However, if reading literature has the potential to improve our ability to understand the people around us, that’s certainly impetus to pick up that novel that has been sitting beside your bed.
What is more, it is impetus to think carefully about the literature we do read. If reading a novel can alter the way I perceive the world–and I tend to agree that it does–my choice of reading material becomes a matter of much greater consequence.
Thanks, Aaron, for a thought-provoking post, and Dr. Oatley, for a thought-provoking article.