There is some debate on whether reading literary fiction has any effect on the brain. Can reading improve empathy, mentalizing (being aware of one’s and other’s thoughts), and desirable attitudes? Research in this area looks at the theory of mind and social cognition. Let us first understand these terms.
Theory of Mind – This framework describes a person’s ability to realize that others can have a set of beliefs, attitudes, interpretations, and experiences which differ from their own. It is this capacity to understand the uniqueness of someone else’s mind which facilitates empathy. The theory of mind is split based on cognitive or affective components; where cognitive ToM is thinking about what others are thinking and affective ToM is feeling what others are feeling.
Social Cognition – Social cognition is about how people think about themselves and others in a social context. It looks at thoughts about others, attitudes, judgments, behaviors, etc. and how people apply social information to themselves and others.
Now, before you pick up Lord of the rings, Lord of the flies, or Veronica decides to die, there are some details you might want to know about the psychological effects of reading.
Does reading a novel create any permanent change in the brain? Does reading fiction affect us psychologically?
An experiment was done to find an answer to this question. Participants were asked to read Pompei over 9 days and the researchers scanned their brains to understand where and what the activity was.
To test how the brain changes after reading, researchers scanned them again 5 days later. They found evidence to support the idea that reading a novel has lasting effects on 2 brain regions.
- The left temporal cortex – This is an area that processes language. It’s fair to say that this area is useful while comprehending a book. What they found is that this region showed extra connectivity even when they weren’t reading. They found some lingering shadow activity in that area 5 days later – a direct effect of reading.
- The central sulcus – This region is associated with sensations. Turns out that reading the book had lasting changes about the experiences the reader felt while reading the book. These were assimilated and resulted in long-term changes.
It’s interesting that we don’t always remember the contents of a book even if it leaves an impression. Sometimes we remember specifics – a feeling, the mood, the drama, the intensity of narration, the visualization, the characters, the events, a particular conversation, a choice of word, etc. Could be anything – The experience of reading a book can be subjective.
The act of reading a novel can be a source of ideas that the brain accommodates. These ideas, notions, contexts, etc. even get embedded in our default thinking. If not that, you might be able to remember or reutilize something you learned from a book without remembering the actual content. This would be an abstract influence of an idea you learned. Many of us experience an attitude change because we connected with something we read. One finding (n = approx. 1800) shows that reading a short segment of an unpublished narration with a motif of animal abuse improves the attitude toward animal welfare. In the experiment, they created 2 groups of people – one group read a narration about animal abuse and the other read an unrelated piece of literary work without any animal motifs. The group which read about animal abuse showed a significantly higher concern for animal welfare. This study demonstrates how literary fiction can influence attitude toward members of a different species. Reading can sensitize and promote desirable attitudes.
What about negative attitudes? Does reading have any negative psychological effect? Researchers studied the effect of violent literature on aggressive thoughts and found no significant links between the two.
The attitude change we are talking about can be a long-term psychological change even if we forget the factual details of the book.
A novel often has different characters and points of view. Your empathy networks would be engaged, and depending on how influential the book is, you might remember certain narrations and learn something new. This learning could be long-term. You can easily verify this by asking – ‘What did the character feel?’ or ‘What would I have done in that novel’s scenario?’
This brings us to an unstable finding – Reading fictional books can increase empathy.
Let’s recap and quickly understand what empathy is.
Empathy is the ability to feel, sense, and understand someone else’s mental state. This ranges from emotional mental states to perspectives and anecdotes to why others do things. But empathy doesn’t stop at understanding. It is used to inform one’s actions, statements, attitudes, emotions, and thoughts.
Back to the effect of reading on empathy. In 2013, Kidd and Castano conducted an experiment (n = approx. 600) to find out if reading fiction can increase empathy as understood in the Theory of Mind paradigm. Specifically, reading increases the cognitive component of the theory of mind (thinking about what others are thinking). Their results indicated that reading fictional passages does improve empathy scores. But this story does not end here. Panero et al. (2016) tried to replicate these findings (n = approx. 800) did not find any causal mechanism between exposure to a quick session of reading fiction and empathy. Kidd and Castano critiqued their failure of replication on methodological grounds to which Panero et al. left a commentary explaining why they failed to replicate these findings and reaffirm their failure to replicate.
In conclusion, Kidd and Castano say that reading literary fiction can improve empathy and the theory of mind while Panero et al. say that people with a higher theory of mind are drawn to literary fiction.
Other independent teams looked at this question.
In 2013, Bal and Veltkamp (n = approx. 160) found that prolonged reading of fictional content can improve empathy under specific conditions. They demonstrated that empathy increases when the reader is emotionally transported into the story and this effect does not occur after reading non-fiction. The emotional power of fictional narratives can be an important criterion for the empathy-increasing potential of fictional books.
Another finding showed no causal effect (n = 1006) of reading on mentalizing (awareness of one’s and other’s thoughts). These findings indicate that a single session of reading literary fiction does not affect mentalizing but familiarity with fiction (a habit of reading) is positively associated with mentalizing.
A detailed review of empirical findings by Raymond, Keith, and Justin highlight a number of research insights – people choose some books based on their present emotional state and the idea of changing their emotional state, reading books can have a transformative power which goes beyond ephemeral changes and influence personality, the experience of reading can change the nature of emotions experienced after reading, etc. However attractive and intuitive these findings sound, they are limited. For example, the change in personality is more reflective of a change in self-evaluation and attitude toward oneself because of how it is measured. This problem is compounded by the fact that emotional narratives act like emotional primes which influence how emotions manifest.
What’s the takeaway? Does the research point to any useful insight? Yes. Reading fiction can, under some conditions (known and unknown) influence and increase empathy. Reading fiction is not a sure-shot way to increase empathy but it can transform one’s attitude and emotions. Books can have long-term effects on us and reading them can be a valid way to manage, explore, and modify one’s thoughts.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Soon after researchers publish new insights, I update these articles with their findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.