Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reading Fiction is Good for You- The Scientists Say So

Some people like saying that reading fiction is a waste of time- but science has now proved otherwise. There have been numerous studies showing that reading fiction makes you a better person, and it might even change the chemistry of your brain.

In 2013 researchers at Emory University wanted to find out if reading fiction had any effect on the brain and if that effect had any staying power. Study participants were given the thriller, Pompeii by Robert Harris and were told to read 30 pages each night. The book is a fast-paced story set during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius but with fictional characters. The participants read each night for nine days.

In the morning, after reading, they went to the lab and the researchers scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance machine. After the nine days of reading, they continued to come each morning for scanning for five additional days.

The participants showed a heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain for language. They also showed heightened activity in the central sulcus which is the primary sensory motor region. This part of the brain is able to allow us to think about an action, for example running, and we will be able to feel as if we are doing it. These biological changes in the brain were there in the morning after a night of reading fiction, but they also persisted for the five days after the reading ended.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead researcher on the project. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

In another scientific paper titled, “How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation of the role of emotional transportation” researchers P. Matthijs Bal and Martijin Veltkamp wanted to find out if reading fiction increases a person’s empathy for others, or makes it easier for a person to understand and feel what another person feels, an important part of having healthy relationships with others.

In the study, one group of participants were given a Sherlock Holmes novel to read while the other group was given newspaper articles.  To measure if the participants were emotionally transported by what they read, they were given a survey afterward asking if what they read affected them emotionally, they rated it on a scale for 1 to 5 with 1 being not at all. They were then given surveys to measure their empathy for others.

What was found was that in the fiction readers, if they were emotionally transported by what they read, their scores for empathy improved. But this was not the case for people reading nonfiction. In both fiction and nonfiction, if the reader was not emotionally transported (meaning they did not engage emotionally with the story) there was no improvement in their empathy for others. It was suspected that when readers are not emotionally engaged in the story, they become frustrated and they disengage, this caused them to be more self centred and selfish as a response to the frustration.

Another study published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that reading Harry Potter books could help reduce prejudice and discrimination. The study done in Italy with primary students and high school students showed that groups that read the Harry Potter books showed more tolerance for immigrants and people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT)  community.

Another study done at Washington and Lee University showed that participants who read excerpts of the book Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah about an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman, Arissa, who is assaulted in a New York City subway station showed a lessened rigid racial bias against Arabs as opposed to people who only read a synopsis for the excerpt of that novel. This showed that the writing along with the images created in the reader’s mind and the internal conversation of the protagonist was important in the reader developing a change in attitude.

But it may also matter what type of fiction you read. In a study published in the 18 October, 2013 issue of Science, title “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”, two groups were given stories to read.

One group was given popular fiction to read, while the other was given literary fiction. In tests given afterwards to measure each group’s ability to guess the emotions of a person by only looking at their eyes, the group reading literary fiction consistently scored 10% better than the group reading popular fiction. The researchers speculated that the complex characters in literary fiction assisted readers to understand better the complexity of real humans.

So read fiction! It’s good for you!

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice newspaper)

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