I recently came across a new study which has given the common anecdote often used by librarians some scientific weight – reading fiction can help develop empathy in individuals.
The study which was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences
shows that reading fiction forces readers to relate to the characters on the page and live their lives vicariously. I feel that this is extremely important for children as it allows them to feel the emotions of the characters on the page thereby experiencing feelings that they might not necessarily feel in the own day-to-day lives.
Professor Oatley of the University of Toronto who authored the study states “What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people – with friends, with family, with children – that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience”. Professor Oatley measured a participant’s degree of empathy by using an approach that has never been used before in a study. The technique is called ‘Mind of the Eyes test’. It involves subjecting a participant to 36 photographs of people’s eyes. The participant is told to view the photograph and deduce what the person is feeling or thinking. The participant is given four emotions to choose from for each photograph. The results revealed that participants who read works of narrative fiction received “significantly higher” scores in the Mind of the Eyes test than those who read non-fiction. The results were even higher when the subject’s personality and base character difference were accounted for. And when reading novels about cultures and races different to their own, participants were seen to develop greater empathy towards those cultures and races.
So the next time your child wants to re-read Harry Potter for the umpteenth time, remember that it’s not only Hogwarts and Quidditch that they are learning about but also how to reduce racism and prejudice towards minority groups. You can find more information here.