Reading More Makes You More Empathetic

Reading More, Makes You More Empathetic

New study: literary fiction helps one understand the mental state and emotions of others.

Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.

I’m going to bet that every day My Readers—you supportive people—are empathetic. You are caregivers of parents, children, and grandchildren. Your careers are in healthcare, education, communication, business and retail. You meet people, talk to people and often make quick but necessary decisions about their needs. Then, depending on your day, you might go home exhausted, might even be curt or blunt with your partner. But soon you relax, maybe apologize. But do you need to recharge your empathy battery? Read a book—literature.

Recent Research Advises: Read Tolstoy, Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace

There’s been a lot of press about empathy because of a recent study Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Researchers define “theory of mind” as the crucial skill of understanding or imagining the mental states of others. They asked participants to interpret facial photos showing people with differing emotions after reading either a work of nonfiction or popular fiction or literary fiction. Those that read literary fiction were most accurate in their answers.

Mark O’Connell, in discussing this in a piece for Slate, asks if “the ability to read emotions from pictures of faces really translates into anything like real empathy?” He’s all for reading literary fiction but wonders at the entire premise of the research: “literature as a PX90 workout for the soul, as cardio circuit for the bleeding heart.”  MAYBE!

But O’Connell believes, as I do, that literary fiction’s biggest draw is to allow the reader to explore someone else’s life—their dreams, sufferings, joys. He quotes David Foster Wallace: We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” 

Would a Fun Quiz Reveal the Difference??

Here are three excerpts–a literary, nonfiction, and popular fiction excerpt. Does one more than the others make you identify with a character’s pain (Wallace) or surprises…the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves (George Eliot)?

1. Sam and Remi wandered among the skeletons that had been laid out on tables and tarps to be studied and photographed but which had not been professionally examined since they’d been exhumed. At one point, Sam stopped for a moment. He knelt by the skeleton, craning his neck to see the face from another angle.

“What’s wrong?” said Remi.

“Have you ever tried to get people to keep a secret?”

“Sure,” she said. “That’s pretty much how girls spend sixth grade.”

“Ever succeed?”

“No. Once you tell someone that what you’re saying is a secret, that makes it valuable, a commodity to be traded. Once someone says he has a secret, it means he wants to tell. It’s an invitation to nag him until he gives it up.”

“Here are a thousand people who had a secret. Not one of them told?”

“Got to hand it to the Huns,” she said. “They knew it’s hard to talk when you’re headless. We didn’t have that option in sixth grade.”

2.“No,” said Olive. “I came because you were nice enough to write me a note.”

“I was always sorry my kids didn’t have you for a teacher. So many people don’t have that spark, do they, Olive? Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea? I’m going to have some.”

“No, I’m fine.” Olive watched as Louise stood and moved through the room. Louise bent to straighten a lamp shade, and the sweater fell across her back, showing the thin form of it. Olive didn’t know you could be that thin and still be alive. “Are you ill?” she asked, when Louise returned with a teacup on a saucer.

“Ill?” Louise smiled in that way that reminded Olive once again of flirtation. “In what way ill, Olive?”

“Physically. You’re very thin. But you certainly do look beautiful.”

Louise spoke carefully, but again with that playful tone. “Physically ill, I am not. Though I have little appetite for food, if that’s what you’re referring to.”

Olive nodded. If she had asked for tea, she’d have been able to leave when she’d finished. But it was too late now. She sat.

3. On a nationally syndicated public television program, a middle-aged man with a trim beard and a warm Texas drawl is earnestly addressing a sizable viewing audience. With near-religious intensity, befitting his seminary training, he speaks movingly about the psychology of addiction and its roots in childhood trauma. Often referring to his own abusive upbringing and adult struggle for emotional health, this influential psychotherapist-educator–John Bradshaw–repeatedly emphasizes the lasting importance of our earliest years. Gazing into the television camera, he urges the viewer to “embrace your lost inner child.”

The first excerpt is from Clive Cussler’s novel THE TOMBS, the second from Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, and the third from VISIONS OF INNOCENCE by Edward Hoffman. If anyone has strong opinions as to which would make you more empathetic, please comment. Possibly my choices are skewed, but popular fiction does tend to emphasize the story line and nonfiction focusses on exactly what is happening, not leaving much room for wonder, conjecture and peer into another’s soul. The research, apparently, found that literary fiction MOST OFTEN does the latter. (FYI The second excerpt is literary fiction: Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner.)

No matter what you read, having empathy and compassion for others can elevate your life, give you inner peace. You do need to do something else, however. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, zeroed in on it. He wrote: Empathy is incredibly important, but if we are thinking about ourselves first, and only ourselves, we can’t empathize. We must get ourselves out of the way, and think of the other person… Be self-less rather than selfish. Babauta admits that he is still learning how to do that. Aren’t we all? Read more of his ideas here. Read, read, read. Reading more might just make you more empathetic!

UPDATE: Dec. 29th, 2013 Another opinion by Robert M. Sapolsky from the LA Times. Another Use for Literature. 


Reading More Makes You More Empathetic

Reading More Makes You More Empathetic










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5 thoughts on “Reading More Makes You More Empathetic

  1. This is a very interesting premise and one that rings very true, especially with the examples; the first one (THE TOMBS), registering more with me. Why? I couldn’t tell you, but isn’t that the beauty of the whole idea, to explore the unknown and find empathy for another’s life? Kind of like listening to music, and getting an emotional reaction. Why? Who knows, it’s just there……Excellent Boomer Highway.


    • Thanks, Bill. It’s interesting that you chose the example that you did–and it makes perfect sense to me, anyway, that such content would speak to you more than Olive and the reticent teacher. I think ALL fiction can contain elements that make us wonder about our own lives, that speak to our own lives.

      Thanks so much for writing, Beth

  2. From John PF: Words of such transcendent beauty as this give a meaning to life:

    from WAR AND PEACE
    “Don’t speak to me like that. I am not worth it!” exclaimed Natasha and turned to leave the room, but Pierre held her hand. He knew he had something more to say to her. But when he said it he was amazed at his own words.
    “Stop, stop! You have your whole life before you,” said he to her.
    “Before me? No! All is over for me,” she replied with shame and

    “All over?” he repeated. “If I were not myself, but the handsomest,
    cleverest, and best man in the world, and were free, I would this moment ask on my knees for your hand and your love!”

    For the first time for many days Natasha wept tears of gratitude and tenderness, and glancing at Pierre she went out of the room. Pierre too when she had gone almost ran into the anteroom, restraining tears of tenderness and joy that choked him, and without finding the sleeves of his fur cloak threw it on and got into his sleigh.

    “Where to now, your excellency?” asked the coachman.
    “Where to?” Pierre asked himself. “Where can I go now? Surely not to the club or to pay calls?” All men seemed so pitiful, so poor, in comparison with this feeling of tenderness and love he experienced: in comparison with that softened, grateful, last look she had given him through her tears.
    “Home!” said Pierre, and despite twenty-two degrees of frost Fahrenheit he threw open the bearskin cloak from his broad chest and inhaled the air with joy.
    It was clear and frosty. Above the dirty, ill-lit streets, above the black roofs, stretched the dark starry sky. Only looking up at the sky did Pierre cease to feel how sordid and humiliating were all mundane things compared with the heights to which his soul had just been raised. At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812—the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having traveled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly—like an arrow piercing the earth—to remain fixed in a chosen spot, vigorously holding its tail erect, shining and displaying its white light amid countless other scintillating stars. It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.

  3. Hi Beth,

    It’s me, Kathy Meyer! We worked together at Mercy Hospital about 20 years ago. I happened to be looking people up on facebook, and I found you! If you remember, John directed me toward Aetna, and am sure his influence got me the job–worked there for about 14 years, as nurse consultant, manager, corporate educator, and finally, designer and developer for web-based training. Am retired now; have 7 grandchildren–oldest just turned 21, and youngest, 3 1/2.

    Would love to hear from you!

    Happy New Year to all in your family,

    • Kathy, Kathy–so good to hear from you. I sent you an email.
      Thanks for reading Boomer Highway. We have to connect. Beth

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