I am talking about empathy here – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy requires you to use your imagination. Reading fiction enhances the imagination, and increases your potential for empathy.
In their 2006 study, Bookworms versus Nerds, Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley exposed participants to both fiction and non-fiction reading material, and found that 'comprehension of characters in narrative fiction appeared to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels.' Furthermore, 'the tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.'
Their 2009 study, Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy, attempted to replicate these findings whilst ruling out the huge variable of individual personality. They found that 'fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task,' And that 'exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.'
Subsequent studies have backed up Mar and Oatley’s research, with especial emphasis on reading literary fiction.
|"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -|
until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
As if that wasn’t enough, empathy increases our emotional intelligence, our powers of perception, improves communication and develops the imagination. And the more we can relate to and imagine what the emotions and experiences of others actually feel like for them, the less likely we are to judge, which leads to greater sensitivity, more tolerance and more compassion.
This clearly isn’t a comprehensive study on the subject, but as a writer of fiction, I must frequently put myself in the shoes of another and try to understand how they think and feel; I ask myself, "how would this person react, and why?" I’d like to think this makes me less critical of others, and more inclined to look beyond the behaviour and try to understand how and why people behave as they do.
And when Bring Me Sunshine was studied by students on the Working with Children, Young People and Families course at Cumbria University, I received dozens of letters of thanks (see here for a selection of their comments) for enlightening them about the feelings and experiences of young carers. When readers tell me they felt what my character was feeling, it means I’ve done my job properly. For those readers, perhaps it will also inform the way they go out about their lives… As one student kindly put it:
“As our module explores the challenges young people, children and families face, this book is extremely helpful. Compared to other academics texts this book allows the reader to feel more connected and therefore take more from it. I feel as though I will be able to use this book to further my studies as it has given me a wider knowledge on the challenges (young carers) face in today’s society, and how they can be helped.”
Which brings me to my conclusion; you should read fiction not just because it's fun and absorbing and a perfectly blissful way to while away a few hours, but because developing more empathy and compassion will make the world a better place.
Thanks to all those students who gave me such valuable feedback on Bring Me Sunshine.
To read more about the benefits of empathy, take a look at The Culture of Empathy