When was the last time you  read a novel? If it's been a while, consider picking one up soon. There's compelling scientific evidence that doing so will both improve your emotional intelligence and give you better brain function overall.​

Educators and researchers have long wondered whether reading fiction, which always invites readers to consider different perspectives and ways of life than their own, could be useful for improving readers' empathy. Now we have the answer.

David Dodell-Feder, assistant professor in psychology at the University of Rochester, and Diana Tamir, an assistant professor in psychology at Princeton, undertook a meta-study in which they reviewed 14 studies that examined whether reading fiction, compared with reading nonfiction or not reading at all, had a measurable effect on subjects' empathy. Empathy was measured in a variety of ways, including the ability to read other people's expressions, to see things from other people's perspectives, and to guess how others would feel in different situations. The empathy improvement was small but statistically significant, and it was repeated across different studies and different ways of measuring empathy. 

It's an important finding, Art Markman, PhD, head of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at the University of Texas, Austin,​ writes on Psychology Today's website. As he notes, subjects in the experiments generally read (or didn't read) for only a brief period of time before their empathic abilities were measured. Since that brief bit of reading fiction was enough to make an immediate difference, it seems likely that those who read fiction on a regular basis would see a sustained and perhaps more significant improvement in their ability to empathize and emotional intelligence.

That's certainly how it seems to work for Markman's students. "Literature plays a significant role in what we teach," he writes. And, he says, "By showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others' thoughts or feelings." This is why he and his colleagues incorporate literature and the humanities into their program.

Novels have the biggest impact

One benefit not measured in the 14 studies is the effect of reading novels as opposed to short fiction. Other research, however, has proved that, while reading in general benefits your brain and adds years to your life, that effect is most pronounced when you read books as opposed to shorter works. It turns out that following a story line and remembering characters over several reading sessions, as you must do with a book, is especially beneficial for brain function. I'm willing to bet it's more effective at increasing empathy as well. 

The message is clear: You should have a stack of novels on your bedside table or in your favorite mobile device. Though the researchers didn't make a distinction between nonfiction as a whole and personal writing, it seems a safe bet that reading memoirs, which almost always seek to put the reader in the narrator's shoes, would have the same sort of effect.

So go ahead. Curl up on the sofa, or crawl into bed, or get in the tub with a novel or memoir as often as you can. It's good for your brain and your health. It will heighten your emotional intelligence. It might even make you a better boss. 

Published on: Jan 3, 2019
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