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Can Fiction Heighten Empathy?

If you read stories to your grandchildren and also read fiction for your own pleasure, you may be improving the ability of both the children and yourself to understand what other people are thinking or feeling. That’s the finding of a study presented on August 7th 2014 at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention in Washington D.C. by psychologist Raymond Mar from York University in Canada.

A release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology notes that many stories are about people–their mental states, their relationships— and even stories with inanimate objects may have human-like characteristics. Mar explains that we understand stories using basic cognitive functions and there is not a special module in the brain that allows us to do this. Understanding stories is similar to the way we understand the real world. “When people read stories we invoke personal experiences,” Mar says. “We’re relying not just on words on a page, but also our own past experiences. We often have thoughts and emotions that are consistent with what’s going on in a story.”

According to Mar, social outcomes that could come out of being exposed to narrative fiction can include exposure to social content, reflecting on past social interactions, or imagining future interactions. We may gain insight into things that have happened in the past that relates to a character in a story and resonates with our experiences. “Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships,” Mar explains.

According to one study, over 75 percent of books typically read to preschoolers frequently reference mental states, and include very complex things such as false-belief or situational irony. “Children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old acquire a theory-of-mind,” Mar says. “In other words, an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs and desires that may differ from their own. Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking.

There is some evidence that adults who process stories deeply and are highly engaged in the story report more empathy, but the results have been inconsistent. Mar’s study in 2006 illustrated that fiction predicts individual’s ability to infer mental states from photographs, and the result has been replicated by a number of other studies. Studies have shown that narrative fiction correlates with better mental-inference ability and more liberal social attitudes. “Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world…and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat—it’s not a magic bullet–it’s an opportunity for change and growth,” Mar says.

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