Saturday, October 5, 2013

Fiction enhances readers’ empathy

Scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities. As reported on NPR: people did better on a test of social perception, “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” after reading from literary fiction than people who were assigned to read from non-fiction or popular fiction books.

Science Magazine published the study online on Oct. 3. According to co-author Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York, “popular” fiction tends to be focused on plot, while “literary” fiction focuses on psychology and the characters’ inner life.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the idea that reading fiction develops social abilities. For Psychology Today, in April 2011, Susan Cain explained ways in which reading fiction helps people develop empathy. And according to Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones, stories help to increase children’s empathy and identify nuances in situations where good and bad are not clearly defined.

The study, however, supplies “empirical evidence,” which co-author and graduate student David Comer Kidd says is missing from debates about the value of the arts and humanities.

According to Castano, when reading literary fiction, readers have to watch what the characters do and infer what they are thinking and feeling. “This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life.”

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