Reading as a way to improve empathy.


New research has suggested that fiction may be more beneficial to use than we realise, by improving empathy and social skills – this may even include television and video games.

Keith Oatley, of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, has discussed the impact fiction has on social skills in his recently published study.

Researchers are now beginning to recognise the importance of imagination in the development of social skills such as empathy. For example, as cited by Oatley, a recent fMRI study looked at the response in the brain to imagination producing phrases. It was found that simple phrases, such as ‘orange-striped pencil’, were enough to produce activation in the hippocampus – an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This shows the great power of the mind of the reader.

In his own study, Oatley sted that fiction is a ‘simulation of social worlds’ and can act as a type of flight simulator for the mind. The study involved viewing 36 images of people’s eyes, and selecting a phrase that closely resembled what the person may have been thinking or feeling. Participants could choose out of ‘reflective’, ‘aghast’, ‘irritated’ and ‘impatient’. This test is called the ‘Mind in the Eyes Test’, and is designed to test empathy and Theory of Mind in a way that is not explained by verbal competency.

From this it was found that participants who read fictional books had a significantly higher test score than those who read non-fiction, signifying higher levels of empathy.

This may not be limited to books however, as previous studies have reported that fictional TV dramas have a similar effect, particularly when compared to TV documentaries which showed no such reaction. Video games with a narrative story can also have this effect.

According to Oatley, fictional media that involves the person engaging with characters may lead to improved empathy and social skills. He says: “the most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social… fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.” It is believed from this that fiction can help us to understand those whose experience may be different from our own.

Oatley’s study was published in the journal ‘Trends in Cognitive Sciences’.

Written by: Philippa Berry

Sources: Medical News Today and Psychblog.

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