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Can reading encourage empathy?

Although it has long been assumed that reading is good for your mental health, there has been little evidence so far to prove it. However in a new review published this week a professor from the University of Toronto, Canada, argues that reading fictional stories could encourage individuals to show more empathy.
Keith Oatley, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, looked at a variety of studies to establish a link between literature and psychology, and believes that by exploring the lives of characters in a book, or even in a TV show, readers can better form ideas about others' emotions, motives, and ideas in real life.
The review follows the recent trend of looking at the link between reading and mental health, in part spurred on by the increasing use of brain scans to gather evidence.
One of the studies included in Oatley's review asked people to imagine phrases, for example, "a dark blue carpet," or "an orange striped pencil," while in an fMRI machine.
The scans showed that "Just three such phrases were enough to produce the most activation of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory. This points to the power of the reader's own mind," said Oatley.
"Writers don't need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader's imagination — they only need to suggest a scene."
Oatley also believes that fictional stories promote empathy and understanding in the reader as these stories create a social world and encourage us to engage with the characters, with the effects also seen not only in readers but also viewers of fictional TV shows and players of video games with a narrative story.
In a study led by Oatley himself the team used the "Mind of the Eyes Test" to look at the effect of fiction on levels of empathy.
Participants were asked to view 36 photographs of people's eyes, and for each set of eyes to choose from four terms to indicate what the person is thinking or feeling.
The results showed that even after taking into account a participant's personality and individual differences those who read fictional books had significantly higher scores than those who read nonfictional books.
Further studies have also shown that fictional narratives can generate empathy for a race or culture different to one's own, with one study showing that those who read a fictional story about the experiences of a Muslim woman in New York were less biased towards Arab and Caucasian faces when compared to a control group that read a non-narrative story.
Although Oatley acknowledged that more research needs to be done, he also pointed at the power of narrative: "What's a piece of fiction, what's a novel, what's short story, what's a play or movie or television series? It's a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you're reading or watching a drama, you're taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own. That seems an exciting idea."

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