Chapter and verse on why readers get a benefit from their novel experiences

BROUGHT TO BOOK: Fiction isn't just enjoyable; it enhances your ability to empathise with others and understand life.  PICTURE: PA
BROUGHT TO BOOK: Fiction isn't just enjoyable; it enhances your ability to empathise with others and understand life. PICTURE: PA
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CAN reading fiction make you a better person? The answer appears to be yes, as Sheena Hastings reports.

BOOKWORM is a word we often associate with quiet, unsociable individuals who seem to prefer the company of fictitious strangers to those around them in the real world. The word is too often used in a slightly disparaging way to imply a discomfort with and avoidance of interaction with others.

Well, counter-intuitive though it might sound at first, people who spend every spare moment with their nose stuck in a novel are actually better at both relationships with others and understanding of the world in general than those who don’t read much or whose reading is exclusively factual.

So we who spend our lives feeling a little inferior to those who tuck into a history tome or choose a work of political biography or science to improve their mind should hold our heads high. Basically, the more fiction you read the better you are operating at a social level and getting to grips with what life may throw at you.

It’s been suspected for thousands of years that fiction does more to develop the mind than, say, history. The Ancient Greeks believed poetry, from the epic tales of Homer to the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, were more serious and important because they were about how the world could be, not how it had been already. Fiction – in all its many forms including novels, poetry, drama and film – stretches our imagination and ethical beliefs and gives us insights into other people and situations we might not ordinarily meet or experience.

Somehow in the aeons between the Ancient Greeks and ourselves there seems to have been an ebbing away of the idea that fiction actually improves us beyond the level of giving a wider vocabulary and broader cultural awareness. Reading “made up” things has not, in modern times, been given credit for making us better people, perhaps because not much has been done to measure and prove their psychological effects.

A team led by Keith Oatley, a British psychologist (and latterly also a novelist) based at the University of Toronto in Canada, started out on a research project that they hoped would answer these questions: in what ways might reading fiction be good for you, and if it is good for you why would this be, and what is the psychological function of art generally? Through a series of studies they established that fiction isn’t just enjoyable; it enhances your ability to empathise with others and understand life.

Anyone who’s ever been in a book group or simply enjoys comparing views on Harry Potter or a new bestseller with friends, knows that we all interpret stories in different ways because we bring to the activity our personal life experience, knowledge, moods and feelings. These differences mean we engage individually with a story and can find ourselves in furious arguments with others who condemn or defend Mr Darcy’s rudeness and arrogance at the start of Pride and Prejudice. Some of us can see how he can plausibly become a changed man by the end of the novel, and others don’t believe such men ever change their spots. And as for the proud and self-righteous Lizzie...

That’s the great thing about a good work of fiction: no matter how cleverly the writer might try to lead you into thinking about the characters and plot in a certain way, we all react differently thanks to our own history, imagination and the fact that we use the story as a kind of flight simulator in which we explore how we would react in those circumstances and with those people.

“I’ve been doing research on the psychology of fiction for 20 years,” says Prof Oatley. “It took a long time to devise reliable tests that would pinpoint what the actual psychological effects of reading fiction are. Reading about Darcy and Elizabeth or Hamlet or Harry Potter and the progress of their relationships and dilemmas gets you, the reader, practising how to understand others and how they think and behave. That enhanced understanding feeds into your thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. What we’re saying is that fiction has a great ability to help you to develop empathetic skills. The fiction we’re talking about doesn’t have to be particularly literary work. Even moderately ‘schlocky’ novels help to further our understanding of different kinds of people from ourselves and the things they live through. It’s about identification.”

Neuro-imaging research had already proven that when we recognise an emotion in someone else our brains generate the same feelings – in other words we simulate their emotional state. How did the professor and his team go about measuring the specific psychological effects of reading about characters’ experiences in fiction?

Part of the research involved gauging how much fiction and non-fiction was read by 94 participants, then to estimate their social abilities, two tests were used. In the first each person looked at a series of photos of other people’s eyes as though seen through a letter-box. The second test asked participants to view 15 clips of people interacting then answer a question about each one, for example: “Which of the two children in the clip (or both, or neither), are offspring of the two adults in the clip?”

The results confirmed that reading fiction is associated with increased social ability, with those who read predominantly fiction performing substantially better in the first test than those who read predominantly non-fiction and also doing better in the second test. The body of evidence was built up using a host of different methods. But of course there are the exceptions that prove this apparent rule that fiction is not only enjoyable and life-enhancing but literally character-building. History is peppered with vile personalities who were also, or claimed to be, voracious readers of a wide range of fiction.

“Yes, that’s true,” says Oatley. “Stalin is one example of someone who was very well read but also a villain. There will always be people out there with great understanding of human nature who use that skill to evil ends. But for most people it is an entirely positive thing that when they read a story they put aside their own concerns and take on the concerns of the characters they engage with.”

And how is Oatley’s research seen by the Eng Lit community? “They are more sniffy than not...they don’t really approve of anyone trying to measure the effects of literature.”

* Such Stuff As Dreams – The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley is published by Wiley-Blackwell, £16.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go to postage costs £2.75.