The ability to perceive other people’s feelings and thoughts is a process we call empathy. And there is actually a way that we can become more attuned to the inner lives of others; it’s reading. We consume reading materials every day, but the type of material that you consume has an impact on your ability to empathize with others in real life.
Scientific American reports of a study in which researchers at The New School in New York City conducted a study in which participants were asked to read literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, or nothing. They were then asked to complete a test that measured their ability to understand other’s emotions. The study found that people who had read the literary fiction were the group that was most capable of understanding other’s emotions.
In another study that The Washington Post reported on, researchers asked participants which author’s names they recognized. The theory was that people who read more would know more names of authors. Similar to the study reported in Scientific American, those who knew more names scored higher on prosocial behaviors. And this study also concluded that literary fiction had more ability to influence empathy than genre fiction.
You might be wondering why literary fiction has so much more of an impact than genre fiction and nonfiction. One of the key components to literary fiction is an increased focus on the inner lives of the characters. In contrast, genre fiction focuses on plot twists and physical objects. Similarly, most nonfiction doesn’t delve into inner lives, either.
But it’s not just reading great books that make us more empathetic. It’s also the way that we read them. Fiction can be immersive, and when we immerse ourselves in the lives of characters, this primes us to be more attuned to the lives of others. When we read a novel that is built with characters with experiences that are different from our own, we can then transfer these skills to other parts of our lives.
If you want to become more aware of other’s lives, stories are a great way to gain this skill. Reading stories is a way of reminding ourselves that not everyone’s lives are exactly like our own. We all have our own struggles, and we all see the world from a different perspective.