Does Reading Fiction Make Us More Empathic?

The opportunity to empathize with a person’s story and share their inner life–even a fictional life–enhances our understanding of their world.
My father, Irving Goleman, was a philologist and professor born at the end of the nineteenth century. While I was only fifteen when he passed away, I have learned about his courses and legacy as a riveting lecturer from his former students and many of his papers.

Irving’s signature course, “World Literature: Autobiography of Civilization,” extended beyond the standard cannon to include myths, folk ballads, and oral works from ancient to modern times. The first paper he assigned was an autobiography, with the prompt “Who Am I?” Based on this assignment, he would design a personalized reading list for each student. He chose books that spoke to the issues they faced in life.

For instance, a student named Emilie was assigned the topic “A Study of Conflicts in the Soul of Womanhood.” She was to read Shakespeare’s Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra, Racine’s Phaedra, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler, and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. 

This personalized syllabus offers a form of bibliotherapy, a wide-reaching term for the ancient practice of prescribing books as therapy. Books–particularly literature, poetry, and plays–can help us better handle transitions and conflicts in our lives. Seeing how we share humanity, even with fictional characters, helps us put ourselves in other’s shoes.

Drawing Empathy from Stories

In his book The Moral Laboratory Frank Hakemulder found that people who read a fictional narrative of an Algerian woman better understood her perspective and the role of gender in Algeria than those who read a non-fiction account of that country’s gender dynamics. In this way, the opportunity to empathize with a person’s story and share their inner life–even a fictional life–enhances our understanding of their world.

Reading stories about people from different backgrounds and cultures has also been found to reduce unconscious bias. A team of researchers at Washington and Lee University had participants read an excerpt from Saffron Dreams, a novel by Shalia Abdullah about a non-stereotypical Muslim woman living in New York City. The excerpt included her inner monologue and depictions of Muslim culture. Compared to control groups, who read either a short summary of the story or an unrelated essay about cars, those who read the version that included her views showed less bias while looking at Arab and Caucasian faces. 

Reading fiction and boosting empathy also converge on a neurological level. Cognitive empathy–the ability to understand another person’s perspective and reflect on their situation–activates circuitry in the temporoparietal junction at the back of the brain. This region Helps us reflect on another person’s mental state, including the situations that shape that state. This brain circuitry is also active as we comprehend what we read. Brain studies find that while we read stories, mirror neurons in the parietal lobe fire, mimicking inside our own brain what’s happening in the story. This makes it easier for us to interpret the characters’ feelings and thoughts, suggesting how reading stories that share character’s inner lives can help us cultivate more empathy.

Reading with Focus

Bonus: When we lose ourselves in a story we also strengthen our ability to focus. Reading books–as opposed to newspapers or online articles–promotes “deep reading” in which readers immerse themselves in a story and draw connections between the what they read and the world around them. This may help explain why research finds reading books increases lifespan among the elderly. Books had a significantly greater impact on lifespan than reading magazines or newspapers; even reading one chapter per day was found to provide an increase in lifespan of 23-months. The researchers noted: “books can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.”.

Our identities–including the events we experience and the people who have influenced us–exist in the stories we tell about our lives. And we understand others through their stories. Tales of origins, of war, and of love predate writing itself. When we read another person’s story–real or fictional–we expand our awareness of what it means to be human.

My father spent his life in the service of language and of others. He was a lifelong advocate for equality and lived by a motto from the Latin: “I am a human, and therefore nothing human is alien to me.” He was passionate about sharing the riches of intellect and saw the emerging community college movement as a means to do just that. Here’s a comment he made on the paper of one of his students, urging her to do her share “to counter-act the cynical materialism of our age–afraid to dream of peace and love and compassionate understanding. We who believe in mankind must keep our feet on the ground–i.e., learn all we can about the total human being, good and bad–but ever persist and act in our faith there are things of the spirit greater and more ennobling than cold reason, timid commonsense, safety first, and my and mine.”

To enroll in Daniel Goleman's online course series, Fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence click here. Each course is two weeks long, facilitator-led, and delivered with a group of fellow professionals. In an interactive way, the content delves into the science behind each competency, why each matters, and how to apply them in your work and your life. Developed by Dr. Goleman and his team at Key Step Media, each course is designed to maximize behavioral change using what we understand about the brain-basis of Emotional Intelligence. The facilitators guiding each group are expert-level coaches in Emotional Intelligence.


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