Can reading boost your empathy? Depends on what you read, study says

A woman reads in Victoria Tower Gardens
Reading can make you more empathetic, studies say -- but it matters what you're reading.
Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images 2011

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

Can reading fiction really make you more empathetic?

The connection between reading fiction and recognizing other people's emotions is a favorite topic for scientists: Several studies over the last decade have found a connection between the two.

A 2013 study published in "Science" found that subjects were more adept at discerning the emotions of people in photographs after reading works of literary fiction. They found no similar boost after people read nonfiction or — and here's the tricky distinction — pop fiction.

A new study, published this year by the same researchers, aimed to confirm that: The empathy boost comes from reading literary fiction but not pop fiction or genre fiction.

But how do you separate the literary from the pop? The study put authors like Louise Erdrich, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison and others who had worn big-name awards in the literary camp, and authors like Danielle Steele and Gillian Flynn in with pop.

What's the difference? Why doesn't genre fiction — thrillers, romance and more — spark the same reaction? Is it the amount of time that literary fiction spends in characters' heads? Does genre fiction value plot over emotional development? There's no objective line between what's literary and what's pop, which complicates the study's conclusion.

And the very idea of literary fiction as a separate category is controversial. In a 2006 interview, novelist John Updike skewered the term.

From Time:

"The category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit."

Even the authors of the study themselves were quick to stress that this does not mean literary fiction is "better" in any way from pop fiction. David Kidd, one of the researchers behind the study, told The Guardian:

"What we are saying is that there are different ways of telling a story, and they have different impacts on the way we perceive social reality. Literary fiction, we say, tends to challenge social categories — the characters are category-resistant ... Popular fiction, on the other hand, uses types of characters which help us immediately understand what is going on. That's how we learn about the social world — how we build our national and cultural identities."

Kidd and his research partner, Emanuele Castano, both agree that more research is needed into the precise way that fiction affects the brains of readers.

So for now, just keep reading.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.