There's nothing quite like becoming immersed in a good fiction novel; for many readers, it is a way of fueling the imagination, providing a period of escape from the more laborious aspects of daily life. But in a new review, one psychologist claims fiction may be more beneficial than we realize: it has the ability to encourage empathy.

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Fiction could improve a person's empathy in the real world, according to a new review.

In the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Keith Oatley, of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, Canada, discusses how fiction may impact a person's social skills.

As well as reviewing findings from previous studies assessing this association, he talks about a study conducted by himself and his colleagues that investigated how literary fiction influences readers' empathetic response in the real world.

According to Oatley, of late, researchers have developed an increasing interest in how fiction might affect the mind.

"There's a bit of a buzz about it now," he says. "In part, because researchers are recognizing that there's something important about imagination."

Such interest has been partly fueled by increased utilization of brain imaging in the field of psychology, says Oatley.

He points to one study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the brain's response to imagination-inducing phrases, such as "a dark blue carpet" or an "orange-striped pencil."

"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," says Oatley.

"Writers don't need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader's imagination - they only need to suggest a scene."

Increased empathy for readers of fictional books

In his review, Oatley discusses the results of a study he and his colleagues conducted that explored how literary fiction may affect a reader's empathy in daily life.

Explaining the reasons for exploring this association, Oatley points out that fiction is a "simulation of social worlds," and "similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills. Fiction might be the mind's flight simulator."

As such, empathy might be one social skill that can be improved through fiction.

To find out, he and his research team asked a number of adults to complete the "Mind in the Eyes Test," which Oatley describes as "an index of empathy and theory-of-mind that is not based on narrative; therefore, effects cannot be explained by verbal competencies."

In this test, subjects were required to view 36 images of people's eyes and select one of four phrases that they believe most closely matched what each person might be thinking or feeling. The terms were: "reflective," "aghast," "irritated," or "impatient."

Compared with subjects who read non-fictional books, those who read fictional books had significantly higher test scores, indicating a much higher level of empathy.

Oatley says this finding remained after accounting for individual differences in personality and other characteristics.

The study from Oatley and colleagues is not the first to associate literary fiction with increased empathy. He describes previous research that showed readers of a book called Saffron Dreams - a fictional story of a Muslim woman in New York - had greater empathy for people of a different race/ethnicity, compared with those who did not read a fictional book.

Improved empathy not specific to literary fiction

Previous studies have indicated that increased empathy may not only occur with literary fiction. Oatley points to one study that identified improved empathy among participants who view fictional TV drama. Viewing TV documentaries, however, produced no such effect.

Overall, Oatley believes the evidence to date suggests that any form of fictional media that involves the reader or viewer engaging with the characters may lead to improvements in empathy and other social skills in the real world.

"The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social. What's distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people - with friends, with lovers, with children - that aren't pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience."

Keith Oatley

There is no doubt that researchers are shedding light on the link between fiction and psychology, but Oatley says there is much more to learn. One question he would like answered is how storytelling has influenced human evolution.

"Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called 'entertainment,'" he says. "I think there is also something more important going on."

Read about a study that reveals how acetaminophen might reduce empathy.