Reading literary fiction enhances our capacity for empathy

Empathy: if there’s one thing the world needs more of right now, it would be that. Not a week goes by that the news headlines fail to blare some horrible crime or act of hatred and prejudice against a specific individual or group — Muslims, the LGBT community, women, you name it. The lack of empathy, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, seems to very much be at the root of these wanton and sometimes senseless acts of violence where perpetrators seem to be unable or unwilling to put themselves in their victims’ shoes.

Fortunately, the lack of empathy is a problem we can fix. Recent scientific research has shown that by immersing ourselves in literary fiction, our propensity and ability to empathise with others increase in tandem. Cognitive psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University in Ontario, Canada have spent the last 10 years gathering data which shows that reading fiction results in a better understanding of actual human emotions.

“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world… and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat — it’s not a magic bullet — it’s an opportunity for change and growth,” said Mar in a speech at the 2014 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention.

In a particularly interesting study done in 2006, Oatley and Mar tasked 94 participants with determining a person’s emotional state by looking only at a photograph of their eyes. They found that “the more fiction people [had] read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues”.

But why literary fiction? One possible answer is that compared to other genres, literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. So though they may be imagined, the stories nevertheless come from a very real place, namely the writer’s own experiences and understanding of the human condition and their accompanying complexities. Literary fiction, from this perspective, communicates a truth about life and people that goes beyond the mere descriptions in the prose.

By reading novels with an emotional import, we immerse ourselves intimately in the psyches of the characters and their unique worlds of experience. We have a unique point of view of their experiences, which in turn generate feelings as though they were someone we knew. The spill-over effect is that these experiences help us to better interpret and respond to those who are different from us. The emphasis literary fiction places on psychological realism helps reinforce respect of ‘Otherness’ and encourages readers to get beyond the insularity of their own worlds.

So pick up some lit fic today. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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