People who love reading are often tagged as ‘nerdy,’ ‘unsociable,’ and ‘socially awkward.’ Most of the time, due to their preference to read a book than spend time with ‘actual’ people, people around them think that they are clueless when it comes to understanding other people.
However, according to recent studies, those who love reading fictional stories have a better and improved empathy, compared to those who do not.
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Social scientists at The New School in New York City published a study on October 4, and found pieces of evidence supporting the claim that literary fiction, enhances reader’s capacity to identify with the characters of the story they read. This capability is what people commonly call as empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
In the study conducted by social psychologists, Emanuele Castano, together with David Kidd, they have divided readers according to different genres. A group for literary fiction, a group for nonfiction, and a group that will not read at all.
After the readers were done with their reading assignments, they participated in a test which aims to measure their ability to infer and comprehend other people’s thoughts and feelings. Surprisingly, there is a significant difference between the result of the tests between the literary group and the two other groups.
According to the two researchers, reading literary fiction helps the readers to practice empathy. Since reading requires more mental and cognitive processing, readers of literary fiction are used in identifying themselves with the character of the book for better interpretation and understanding of the story they are reading.
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For example, in the case of the famous Harry Potter series, when the readers identify with Harry, they simply do not think of themselves as a wizard who needs to defeat the power of evil. They put themselves in the shoes of Harry Potter. They felt the pain that Harry endured when Sirius Black, his godfather, died for him. They felt the joy Harry felt when he goofs around with his best friend, Ron. They felt their heart breaking into pieces when Harry was betrayed by his first love, Cho.
In addition, as per the study conducted by the two researchers published in a scientific journal, people who read literary fiction have an amplified emotional connection that goes beyond the book. In fact, literary fiction readers can identify the emotions in other people’s faces better than those who do not.
“When you tell people to pay attention to other people’s subjective experiences, they do better at identifying emotions in other people.” David Kidd, one of the social scientists, said.
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To read fiction is to exercise your mind in trying to understand what the characters have experienced that contributed to the reason behind their action. For example, in the story of X-MEN, Magneto has a deep hatred for regular human beings and wanted to erase humans from our world.
To empathize with Magneto is to understand the reason behind his strong hatred to non-mutant humans. To empathize with Magneto is to understand how he felt when he was manipulated and oppressed by regular human beings.
Reading literary fiction does not only enhance people’s empathy, they also push people to be more emotionally intelligent. Reading fictional stories increases a person’s capacity to understand what is going on the mind of other people.
Since those who read fictions are exposed to filling the gaps of the narrative and the characters’ lives. Just like in real life, learning how to fill in these gaps help readers have a better understanding about what other people are thinking.
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Studies show that bookworms are the best people who knows how to hold opinions, beliefs, and interests apart from their own. In simple term, bookworms are those who can entertain and understand the ideas of other people without giving up their own. After all, readers of literary fiction are capable of experiencing the life of others through abstract eyes, putting the experience of others in their own perspective.
The next time you find yourself having a hard time understanding the people around you, grab a good literary fiction to read. You will be surprised how reading a book can improve your empathy.