We all know that books make us smarter, but did you know they also help us better relate to other people?
Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School of Social Research in New York, showed that reading award-winning novels and short stories improves our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.
In a series of experiments, the researchers found that those who read critically-acclaimed literary texts were better able to guess what others are going through.
They scored higher on tasks like the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, where participants are asked to guess the feelings being expressed by different sets of eyes in photos.
According to Kidd and Castano, interpreting the thoughts and emotions of literary characters is just like trying to make sense of people in real life.
“The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships,” says Kidd. “Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”
As such, reading is great practice for real-life interactions. With added benefits: it poses fewer risks than the real world, and gives us the chance to explore the inner lives of others beyond stereotypes and convention.
Why Best-Sellers Don’t Work
But only challenging works of fiction give us the opportunity to exercise our empathy skills, researchers say.
What Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë can give you that Nicholas Sparks can’t? Internally unpredictable characters, implicit meanings, and multiple perspectives — a combination that engages us, as readers, in the active role of making sense of characters’ actions and the story as a whole.
“What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” says Kidd.
By forcing us to “fill in the gaps” and search for meanings among many possible ones, novels and stories flex our interpretation muscles. In doing so, they prepare us for the tough job of understanding people in real life.