Reading Stories Can Change Your Psyche

Reading Stories Can Change Your Psyche

On November 11, 2013, I published a post about research that revealed that reading literary fiction can make a person more empatheticThe study was based on having readers look at photo’s of subject’s eyes (the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test or RMET) and then identifying what that person was feeling.

Does reading fiction make you more empathetic?

Now that conclusion is being questioned. Sarah Begley writes in the current issue of TIME, that this past September researchers tried to replicate that study only to find that there is no significant connection between reading a short fictional passage and having one’s empathy increased. They did find that study participants who scored high on the RMET recognized the names of real authors on a list versus fake authors. Conclusion: being a devoted reader of fiction might make you more empathetic as opposed to reading a short paragraph for some study.

A Study Author Weighs In–Conclusions

Maria Panero who worked on these studies concludes: “It’s hard to know whether reading literary fiction increase theory of mind (empathy) of if people who naturally have higher theory of mind (empathy) are just more drawn to literary fiction.” Or to say it another way, it’s possible that high empathy and a high interest in literary fiction feed off each other.

Some Fun Facts about Our Involvement with Characters 

  1. One study found that READERS, those who read at least 18 books per year, like to line their bookshelves with their “reads” and communicate that they are readers to others. Reading is part of their identity and self-expression.
  2. Reading can also create a social bond between people. We see that online–large numbers of readers follow certain book reviewers and share their enthusiasm for a particular novel. It’s not unlike tweeting about a favorite television series or becoming so involved with a character in a novel or a film that we feel real grief while reading about them or seeing how their story unfolds.

But let’s take it farther than that.

Can Reading About a Character Affect Future Behavior?   

In her article, Begley reports on a 2012 Ohio State University study. The study “had registered undergraduates read different versions of a story in which the protagonist overcomes challenges in order to vote–like car troubles, bad weather and long lines. Those who read a version that led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in the real election a few days later–65% of them said they voted, compared with 29% who read a less relatable version of the story.” Conclusion: in a small way, reading affected their behavior.

Identifying with Characters or Bibliotherapy 

Ella Berthoud, an artist and Susan Elderkin, a novelist, though not registered therapists, have created a service for clients who are having emotional or life situation problems. They have the client complete a questionnaire about what is happening in their personal lives, but also what they like to read. The bibliotherapist creates a prescription at the end of the session and follows up by sending a list of 6-8 books and why they feel that reading these works will help the client solve problems and feel better about their lives.

Most of the books are fiction. Berthoud states: “Inhabiting a novel can be transformative in a way that using a self-help book isn’t.”

Eldurkin says: “There are certain books that have been really life-changing books for me, and it’s generally a matter of luck whether you hit on the right book at the right time of your life, which can open a door and help you to see something in a new way, or just give you that next leap up into new maturity.”

Curious? Examples of What These Bibliotherapists Prescribe

  1. career crossroads: Patrick deWitt’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS
  2. whether a woman should have a child: Ali Smith’s THE ACCIDENTAL
  3. struggling with divorce: Zora Neal Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
  4. struggling with a so-so relationship: Elizabeth von Arnim’s THE ENCHANTED APRIL


When you think about it, each one of us has probably recommended a book or an article to a friend who was going through a rough patch in life. But usually those recommendations are nonfiction–self-help books written by people with some letters behind their names. Berthoud argues that a truly great novel, “gets into your subconscious and actually can change your very psyche from within.” That is so different from a non-fiction self-help book that lists steps to take to deal with a problem.

All of this–the science that might be able to prove that reading helps your mental health–is limited. But researcher Maria Panero states: “I think we all have some sort of intuitive sense that we get something from fiction. So in our field we are interested in saying, ‘Well, what is it that we’re getting?'”

To riff off a quote from Eldurkin, think of it this way: how many times have you immersed yourself in a novel or a story that provides proof that something you have always felt about your own life is true?

photo credit: Andres Tardio’s Creative Branches – WordPress.com2923 × 1957Search by image Los Angeles: The Last Bookstore

And thanks to Sarah Begley and TIME MAGAZINE.

17 thoughts on “Reading Stories Can Change Your Psyche

  1. Thanks Beth, this I do believe is true. For myself when I get lost in a book, its because it touches me on a deep level, and I actually do feel like I am living with the characters for while, relating to their emotions. They stay with me long after I have finished and I think about what happened.

    • Thanks, Carol. I do think all this research and study is very interesting and in this very visual world, we should not get too far away from the word on the printed page–it stimulates the imagination so that we are creating our own pictures and not filling our heads with someone else’s. Thanks.

  2. What a great study. I am not a big fan of self help books but am an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction so I feel justified!!! Finding a common ground with family and friends over books is great when sometimes there isn’t anything else in common.

    • I especially like your last thought–that sharing the life of characters in a book can bind people together. Same with the story line in a film. Thanks for reading and really like your post today, Beth

  3. Beth, I can’t imagine all the ways books help us. Whatever the research, I believe reading does open our minds and leads to compassion. We get intimately involved with characters, many types we never would know in real life. The more we can identify with others (even those different), the more empathy we gain. Loved this.

    • Hi Laurie,

      I just watched a favorite TV show, Chicago Med, while exercising and couldn’t believe how I broke down and cried. Empathy, for sure. And story telling, which is part of the human condition, greatly contributes. Loved your response, Beth

  4. This is fascinating. I read a lot of books as a young child and I am pretty sure it caused me to imagine how I wanted my life to be when I grew up. I knew what I wanted to do, what kind of wife and mother I wanted to be and so much more.
    I have been accused of being very empathetic. I know some people believe it can’t be taught and learned, you either have it or you don’t. I still wonder:)

    • Thanks, Doreen. I agree you are empathetic, you ALWAYS LIKE the birthday posts for Midlife Blvd. I try to! A friend asked if nonfiction could do the same as fiction–I would say yes if the subject matter brings you there. I’m an RN and he’s a PT and just being around patients demands empathy if you are doing a good job. I love that the books you read led you to be the wife and mother you are. Makes me realize how important it is to provide good lit to our children and grandchildren.

  5. This is the second post I’ve read this evening about reading. I always identified as a reader and then haven’t been reading much for a while. I FINALLY got new glasses and I’m buried in pages once again. It’s amazing. I’ve missed it.

    • I know what you mean. Reading fills out life and just makes it fun to have a book to go to at the end of the day. Enjoy your pages and your new glasses.

  6. This was very interesting to me but I find it to be so true! I can definitely agree with your statement on certain books being life changing or resonating with us at a specific point depending on what we are going through. Books are great therapy sometimes!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. And that’s what the bibliotherapists have discovered. I found that fascinating, They actually started a thriving business doing this–listening to people’s needs and then providing a list of books to read to help them.

  7. The study is right on and it starts early. The book Women Who Run With Wolves, document how little girls are influenced on becoming women by fairy tales. I’ve learned great things from the characters in Jane Austen’s books.

    • Love your reference to fairy tales. I wanted to be Snow White. Whether that helped me form myself into a kind and gentle person–maybe. And I can see how reading Austen would lead one to be understanding and empathetic. THANKS, Beth

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