For most, the love of books starts in childhood. For others, this love blooms later, eventually revealing the vibrant colors of a true bibliophile! But science has started looking into the effects of reading on the brain. They’ve done experiments, ran MRIs, polled, and surveyed, all to what end? Studies have been released in the past several years that have given scientists some interesting data about fiction readers and what type of fiction they should read!
What has science concluded? Studies are showing that readers of fiction are more empathetic towards others. By engaging with a story, readers are temporarily placing themselves in a character’s shoes, therefore, the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on. It’s a fascinating insight into the world of reading.
In 2012, Standford University did research into why this is. According to neuroscientist Bob Dougherty,
“The right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions.”
Your brain does amazing things while you’re reading, the breadth of which researchers are still defining. And by placing yourself into the world of a great novel, you are given the chance to experience something new that could be informative in your interactions with other people.
This compassion was notably detected in children reading Harry Potter. Another experiment “conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best-selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees).”
The conclusion of the study was that children who identified with Harry as a character reacted to his sympathy for marginalized groups (such as “mudbloods”) by becoming more sympathetic towards similar groups in contemporary society (such as the LGBT and immigrant communities). But this was only shown after these connections were explicated to the children and only if they identified with Harry.
What does this all mean?
Sure, we create images in our heads of the stories we read –we engage with language, we sympathize with the characters in our books– but besides Harry Potter, which books should we be reading to maximize these cognitive benefits?
“We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple…”
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Through their research, they found that readers of literary fiction receive more of the empathetic benefits of reading than those who read pop-fiction or non-fiction. The term “literary fiction” seems arbitrary, but Kidd and Castano explain that literary fiction merely denotes the level of complexity in stories and their characters (at least, that’s what it means in the context of their study).
In 50 Shades Of Grey, for example, the characters are laid out. They react to each other and to their environment. By no means are these characters simple or easy, but they do not evoke the same complicated and uncanny feelings that one experiences with Nick Carraway as he narrates The Great Gatsby.
Reading in general helps with empathy, but literary reading amplifies this effect. By reading a challenging book, you’re not only becoming a smarter person, you’re also become more empathetic. Literature is not always easy, but by attempting to tackle harder books, we create new connections in our minds that we might not have otherwise.
Like opening a window to let fresh air into your home, literature opens up our minds to the myriad ideas that we wouldn’t be able to experience on our own! So after you finish your magazine or paperback thriller, reflect on its contents. Take a moment to analyze the experiences depicted as if they were your own. And in choosing your next book, make it a tough one.
Your brain will thank you.