Tom Blunt in Signature:
Think about every bully you can remember, whether from fiction or real life. What do they all have in common?
For the most part, they don’t read — and if they do, they probably aren’t ingesting much literary fiction.
This isn’t just snobbery, it’s a case that scientists are slowly building as they explore a field called Theory of Mind, described by Science Magazine as “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” In an abstract published by the magazine in 2013, researchers found that reading literary fiction led to better results in subjects tested for Theory of Mind. That same year, another study found heightened brain activity in readers of fiction, specifically in the areas related to visualization and understanding language. As Mic explains: “A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling.”
More recently, Trends in Cognitive Sciences reported more findings that link reading and empathy, employing a test called “Mind of the Eyes” in which subjects viewed photographs of strangers’ eyes, describing what they believed that person was thinking or feeling (readers of fiction scored significantly higher). It turns out that the narrative aspect of fiction is key to this response. From the study: “participants who had read the fictional story Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah … were found to have a reduced bias in the perception of Arab and Caucasian faces compared to control subjects who read a non-narrative passage.” More plot-driven genre fiction doesn’t seem to have the same effect.