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Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic?

Neuroscience explains why reading fiction can make your brain more empathetic.

Neuroscientists mapping the brain have discovered that reading fiction taps into the same brain networks as real life experience. When you are engaged in reading a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that reading a chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” lights up the same brain regions that would be involved in watching someone moving—or flying on a broom—in the real world.

The November 2014 study, “Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses," was published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

For years now, neuroscientists around the world have been using brain imaging technology to hone in on the specific brain regions and neural networks that are activated when someone is reading fiction.

In a previous study, cognitive scientists in France found that when someone read a sentence like “Pablo kicked the ball” or “John grasped the object” that brain scans revealed the specific regions of the motor cortex linked to either kicking or grasping an object light up in the fMRI.

It appears that reading fiction can improve the reader's ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is very similar to the visualization that an athlete would use to activate the motor cortex and muscle memory used in sports during a mental rehearsal.

For the new Carnegie Mellon study, the researchers were able to use fMRI to identify specific parts of the brain which are responsible for such subprocessing as the relationships between characters, parsing sentences, and determining the usage and meaning of individual words.

Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student in the Machine Learning Department, and Tom Mitchell, the department head, were able to predict specific fMRI brain activity relating to a specific text passage with 74 percent accuracy, which is quite amazing.

In a press release Leila Wehbe described the experiment saying, “The test subjects read Chapter 9 of Sorcerer's Stone, which is about Harry's first flying lesson. It turns out that movement of the characters—such as when they are flying their brooms—is associated with activation in the same brain region that we use to perceive other people's motion. Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people's intentions."

Reading Fiction Improves "Theory of Mind"

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is described as "the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending,knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own."

In August 2014, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, gave a lecture titled "Fiction and Its Relation to Real-World Empathy, Cognition, and Behavior," at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention.

In his lecture, Mar discussed how exposure to narrative fiction can improve theory of mind and someone's ability to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing.

Mar explained that when you are engaged in reading a story that your brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.

In my Psychology Today blog post from January 2014, “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function," I also made the conclusion that one of the benefits of reading fiction is that putting yourself in someone else's shoes through reading a fictional story improves theory of mind.

As the father of a 7-year-old, I have witnessed the theory of mind benefits of my daughter and other children losing themselves in a good story and narrative fiction.

In his lecture, Mar spoke about an August 2014 study, "Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?" which found that reading a child a fictional story about honesty led the child to act more honestly when presented with a situation in which he or she could lie or cheat.

Reading Engages All Four Brain Hemispheres and the Hippocampus

An August 2013 study, “Decoding the Neuroanatomical Basis of Reading Ability: A Multivoxel Morphometric Study,” from the University of Southern California found that different regions throughout the brain work together to make it possible for us to understand language and identify with the characters in a story.

"Reading is a complex task. No single part of the brain can do all the work," said Qinghua He, postdoctoral research associate at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute and the first author of this study said in a press release about his research which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Interestingly, the USC study brain scans showed a direct correlation between how well a reader could make a connection between a new word and a sound, and the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus and cerebellum.

Specifically, their MRI analysis showed that phonological decoding ability was strongly connected with gray matter volume in the left superior parietal lobe (around the top/rear of the brain) while form-sound association was strongly connected with the hippocampus and cerebellum.

In future studies, the researchers will explore how to combine data from other factors, such as white matter connectivity, and default mode network and task functional MRI.

Conclusion: One More Reason to Cancel Your Cable Contract

The average American home has 2.86 TV sets, which is roughly 18% higher than in the year 2000 (2.43 sets per home), and 43% higher than in 1990 (2.0 sets). In America, there are currently more televisions per home than human beings. On average, children under the age of 8 spend over 90 minutes a day watching television or DVDs. This is disturbing.

Unfortunately, television is the least interactive of any new media and is the one most likely to reduce theory of mind. A paper titled “The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers” was published in November 2013 in the Journal of Communication.

The researchers found that preschoolers who have a TV in their bedroom and are exposed to more background TV have a weaker understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, and reduced cognitive development.

The bedtime ritual of reading a story with your child is an unbeatable way to foster theory of mind while bonding physically and emotionally in a digital-free environment that primes everybody's brain and circadian clock for a sound sleep.

Reading before bed is the perfect way to end the day for people of all ages. If you tend to fall asleep with the television on, why not end your day by reading a book instead?

Reading a paperback or hardcover book before bed could also help you sleep better. Evidence is mounting that the artifical light of digitial devices and television before bed throws off circadian rhythms and could cause insomnia.

If you’d like to read more on this topic check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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Photo Credits: Pixabay

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