If You're an Avid Reader of Fiction, Science Suggests You May Have an Elevated Sense of Empathy

·2 min read

When is the last time you picked up a really good book and then actually read it? Not only does reading give you access to new worlds, different lives, and big laughs, but science says it's pretty darn good for you both mentally and physically.

While cracking open a copy of Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing or The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates won't cure your bursitis, Healthline points to research that shows people who read literary fiction, those engrossing tales that dive deep into the inner lives of characters, have heightened sense of empathy. The research shows that people who regularly make time to read fiction, tend to be better equipped to understand the feelings and beliefs of others.

Woman Reading Book on Bed
Woman Reading Book on Bed

Getty/Pipat Wongsawang / EyeEm

Greater Good, a publication from U.C. Berkeley, notes that there is an "an ever-growing body of research [that] shows fiction has the proven capacity to make readers more open-minded, empathetic, and compassionate." Still more research found that when we read fictional accounts of a life or experience, our brains can process those narratives like we lived them ourselves. As they write, "For example, when reading the word 'kick' or about someone pulling a cord, the same areas of the brain related to physically kicking or grasping are activated." So if you read To Kill a Mockingbird, to a certain extent, your brain makes it feel like you lived through Scout's experience. Fittingly, that brings to mind the line from Harper Lee's book, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view." Turns out reading can help with that.

Aside from reading giving book lovers better social skills and a stronger sense of empathy, there are some actual physical health benefits to being a book worm. Another study had researchers measure the effect of reading a novel on the brain by asking participants to read the novel Pompeii. The scientists used a functional MRI machine to study the brain activity of the readers while they devoured the book and found that as the story got more and more exciting, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity. That brain activity is part of the reason that the National Institute on Aging recommends picking up a book or magazine to keep your mind engaged as you grow older. That brain activity can help improve cognitive function and may reduce the chances of getting Alzheimer's or dementia later in life.

Science has also shown a connection between reading and helping with depression, cutting stress, and, according to the BBC, reading for 30 minutes a week may increase overall health and well-being. Now you have even more reason to actually read that novel for your book club.