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New Study Connects Fiction With Empathy

Oct 21, 2011

Reading fiction can be a great way to unwind while engaging the mind. It's an activity that keeps us connected with different cultures and time periods without ever having to leave our homes. But as a new study indicates, fiction can also be an important factor in expanding our emotional horizons as well.

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By Sarah Wright

why read fiction empathy

Stories Help Us Feel

While plenty of U.S. citizens enjoy reading fiction, some people's only experience of picking up a novel is the process of reading under duress for a class in high school. For many, books are a waste of time, especially fiction. After all, what can you learn from a made-up story?

Of course, the standard answer to that kind of critical question is that even though the plot of a fictional story is fake, and even perhaps the setting, literature poses imporant questions and allows us to put ourselves in different contexts. With the help of a narrator and cast of characters, we can step outside our daily lives into new and different situations, be they based on the real-life setting of 18th century England or the made-up planet Tralfamadore. This argument may be dismissible, but a new study from Canada's York University shows that there are some tangible psychological benefits to reading fiction.

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A Storybook Study

According to Dr. Raymond Mar, Assistant Professor of Psychology at York University, and one of the study's authors, the experience of immersing yourself in the social world created by a work of fiction simulates the experience of immersing yourself in an actual social world in real life. The study focused on children ages 4-6, which is the age at which children start to comprehend other people's feelings and mental states. In the study, the psychologists tried to find a correlation between the number of storybooks a child read and their ability to do well on tests of social ability.

The term 'social ability' refers to a range of skills and qualities relating to how we interact with others, and this includes empathy. Mar found that the children who got the most out of story time were those who discussed the events of a book with a parent, who could help them analyze the feelings and actions of characters in the story. Apparently, this experience helps children hone their social abilities.

A New Perspective

Though the study focuses on children, and doesn't say that reading fiction will turn any average jerk into a saint, it does imply that literature has more social value than we might have previously thought. Empathy is certainly an important factor in any ordered society. It's the voice in the back of our heads that pushes us to be a good member of society, whether than means administering CPR to a stranger or remembering the social impact of potentially committing a crime. Though being overly emotional is certainly a valid critique, it's not likely that you'll ever be criticized for being too empathetic.

Given how under-valued arts and literature are in our technology-focused society, Dr. Mar's work is an important reminder that there are tangible benefits in subjects that might be deemed too 'touchy-feely' to be marketable. And this is just one study. There's no telling how much more tangible benefit we'll be able to find in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

No matter what the technical value, reading fiction is fun - including banned books.

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