Reading fiction might be good for your mental health but exploring inner lives of characters like Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina can form ideas about others’ emotions, motives and ideas, suggested a study.
According to the study published in journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a psychologist-novelist shows that reading or watching narratives may encourage empathy.
“This intersection between literature and psychology has only taken off in the last few years. In part, because researchers are recognising that there is something important about imagination,” said Keith Oatley, Professor, the University of Toronto Department.
Reading fiction and perhaps especially literary fiction simulates a kind of social world, prompting understanding and empathy in the reader, revealed the study.
According to the research, people were asked to imagine phrases like “a dark blue carpet” and “an orange striped pencil” while staying in an functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
Three such phrases were enough activate the hippocampus — brain region associated with learning and memory, suggested the study.
“This points to the power of the reader’s own mind, writers don’t need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader’s imagination — they only need to suggest a scene,” added Oatley.
To measure this empathetic response the researchers were the first to use the “Mind of the Eyes Test”, in which participants view 36 photographs of people’s eyes and for each choose among four terms to indicate what the person is thinking or feeling.
The researchers found that reading narrative fiction gave rise to significantly higher scores than it did while reading non-fictional books.
Similar empathy-boosting effects have been found when participants watched the fictional television drama – The West Wing or played a video game with a narrative storyline, suggested the study.
Further studies have shown that narratives can even generate empathy for a race or culture that is dissimilar to one’s own.