How reading fiction can make you a better person: Insights on Empathy and Emotional Intelligence in Readers


Hatched by Glasp

Aug 24, 2023

3 min read


How reading fiction can make you a better person: Insights on Empathy and Emotional Intelligence in Readers

Reading fiction has long been credited with the ability to change individuals on a personal level. One potential avenue for this transformation is the cultivation of empathy in readers. Philosophically speaking, being naturally empathetic can be a challenge due to a knowledge problem - as poet John Keats once said, "Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced." However, research suggests that fiction books may serve as effective tools for building empathy, providing readers with a close approximation of firsthand knowledge of someone else's experiences.

Studies, including the work of Natalie M. Phillips, have shown that reading fiction not only activates the temporal lobe, which is the language processing center of the brain, but also increases global blood flow in the brain. In essence, reading fiction stimulates the brain in ways that mirror the neural activities associated with the experiences being read about. This finding suggests that reading fiction may enhance affective empathy, which refers to the capacity to share another person's feelings and emotions. Moreover, it has been found that affective empathy specifically predicts immediate helping behavior. In other words, reading fiction appears to be associated with a propensity to offer assistance in the moment.

One study comparing fiction readers, non-readers, and readers of nonfiction found that fiction readers scored higher in empathy and emotional intelligence. The researchers theorized that reading fiction allows individuals to practice adopting someone else's perspective, thereby improving their social awareness. While it is not possible to directly share in another person's experiences, establishing a habit of reading fiction can enhance empathy and emotional intelligence, enabling individuals to "fail better" at understanding the experiences of others, as Samuel Beckett, a postmodern author, once suggested.

Actionable advice for cultivating empathy and emotional intelligence through reading fiction:

  • 1. Make reading fiction a regular habit: Set aside dedicated time each day or week to immerse yourself in fictional stories. By consistently engaging with diverse narratives, you can broaden your understanding of different experiences and perspectives.
  • 2. Reflect and discuss: After reading a fictional book, take the time to reflect on the emotions and experiences portrayed in the story. Discuss your thoughts and insights with others, fostering meaningful conversations that can deepen your empathy and emotional intelligence.
  • 3. Explore different genres and authors: Don't limit yourself to a particular genre or author. Experiment with different literary styles, time periods, and cultures. This exploration will expose you to a wider range of perspectives and further enhance your ability to empathize with others.

In conclusion, reading fiction has the potential to make individuals better people by fostering empathy and emotional intelligence. Through activating the brain in ways that mimic the neural activities of experiences, reading fiction allows readers to practice taking on someone else's perspective, improving their social awareness. By making reading fiction a habit, reflecting on the stories, and exploring diverse genres and authors, individuals can actively cultivate empathy and emotional intelligence. So, pick up a book and embark on a journey of personal growth through fiction.

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