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Reading Of Novels Stimulates Empathy And Emotional Intelligence


Literary fiction is, beyond a pleasure in itself, a way of getting to know ourselves and others through the imagination.

We often see campaigns promoting reading that portray the act of reading books as a new form of health: they look for children to read, for the elderly to read, and for people to read on public transportation, though not always for very clear purposes.

Reading seems a sanctified activity, one capable of producing miracles in people. Of course, reading helps us to relate to our places, to inform us about current events or to learn things we hadn’t known. But in this equation, what can the reading of literature serve, or more specifically, what is served by books like novels, poetry, or essays whose ultimate goal seems to be but the enjoyment of language?

According to a study published in the journal Science, reading fiction can develop empathy and emotional intelligence. In the point of view of the study’s authors, social psychologists, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, reading in and of itself isn’t capable of producing this miracle, but the reading of literary fiction is. Does a job interview make you nervous? Read some stories by Chekhov. Feel that you don’t communicate well with your boyfriend? Perhaps a few minutes of César Aira will broaden your horizons.

The findings were developed after the researchers paid a group of volunteers aged between 18 and 75 years.  The volunteers were asked to read fragments of books for three minutes: one group read fragments from the novelist Don DeLillo. Another read non-fiction. A control group didn’t read anything.

The volunteers were then given the task of solving computerized tests which measured the ability of the subjects to decode or to empathize with the emotions of others in particular settings. The study then presented them with photos of eyes and asked them to assign one of four possible adjectives to describe what the eyes were feeling.

The researchers found that the group which read literary fiction got better results interpreting the gestures of complete strangers in photographs. Although some previous studies have shown that reading fiction could make people empathize more easily in the “real” world, this study further demonstrates that reading doesn’t in itself produce the effect, but that the reading of literature does.

In an increasingly dehumanized world, ever more subject to the logic of the market, reading literary fiction is also a way to maintain a healthy and vibrant imagination, beyond the benefits it may have for society on the levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. In reading the fictional lives of literary characters, we not only look at other ways of being and feeling, but we’re confronted with our own fears and hopes. It’s a way of knowing ourselves through the imaginations of others. We can easily conclude that the reading of literature is its own reward.



*Image: collage by Jaen Madrid

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