Books can make us smarter, more informed, even more intellectually humble. But one of the most powerful benefits of regular reading is greater empathy. Through words you are transported to another's perspective. You look through their eyes. You understand their pain and their joy.

That can relieve loneliness and make life a whole lot more pleasant, but it's also good for business. Understanding customers and collaborators helps you get more done and be more creative.

So how exactly do books accomplish this magic trick? On Lit Hub recently Tufts University professor of child development and reading expert Maryanne Wolf explained the fascinating neuroscience of exactly what immersion in a good book does to your brain. It's a must read for bibliophiles, but the basic takeaways are valuable for any professional who wants to use books as a tool to perform at their best.

"There is no frigate like a book."

The article kicks off with a smorgasbord of quotes that capture just how absorbing a truly great read can be, such as poet Emily Dickinson's famous line, "There is no Frigate like a Book." Entertainingly, we also learn that Machiavelli used to dress up in the style of characters in the books he was reading and hold imaginary discussions with them. 

Machiavelli may have taken his empathy with literary characters to extremes, but even the everyday version, where you become totally immersed in a story and its characters is vastly powerful. This "perspective taking," where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, helps us "understand the range of the often contradictory feelings each of us possesses" and "leaves us feeling less alone with our particular complex mix of emotions," Wolf argues.

Anyone who has ever read about a character and thought, 'Oh, I'm not the only weirdo who thinks that way,' or alternately, 'I never thought of it from that perspective before' will instantly understand what she means. But what happens in the brain to make these perspective-shifting experiences possible?

Reading lights up your brain like a Christmas tree.

It turns out when we're immersed in a great book, it's not just the parts of the brain that deal with language processing that are hard at work. In fact, when we're deeply engaged with a story our brains mirror the actions and feelings of the characters. So if someone in the novel you can't put down is swimming, the sections of your brain that would light up if you yourself were paddling across a pool also activate.

"In what is surely one of the more intriguingly titled articles in this research, 'Your Brain on Jane Austen,' the scholar of 18th-century literature Natalie Phillips teamed with Stanford neuroscientists to study what happens when we read fiction in different ways," writes Wolf. "Phillips and her colleagues found that when we read a piece of fiction 'closely,' we activate regions of the brain that are aligned to what the characters are both feeling and doing."

Or, in other words, when you read about Anna Karenina leaping onto the railroad tracks, parts of your brain involved in motor control quite literally leap with her. When you read about a silky dress or rustling leaves, sections of your brain dealing with sensory perception activate. At a basic brain level we really do experience the same thing the characters do. We don't just understand a book. On a neurological level we live it. 

"When we read fiction, the brain actively simulates the consciousness of another person, including those whom we would never otherwise even imagine knowing. It allows us to try on, for a few moments, what it truly means to be another person," Wolf sums up. That's an incredible empathy workout.

Stop skimming and really sink into a good book.

It should be noted, however, this only applies to old-school deep reading -- the kind where you get totally lost in a book -- which is just the kind of reading our pinging screens are putting in jeopardy. If you're just skimming for information or reading one of 15 open tabs on your browser, your brain doesn't activate in the same way. You might learn facts, but you're not gaining empathy.

"There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books," worries Wolf. "What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding." 

So make time this week to put all your distractions and devices aside and submerge yourself in a great book. Such deep reading nurtures true empathetic connection to your fellow humans. In these difficult and lonely times, who couldn't use a little more of that?

Published on: Sep 24, 2018