Read more novels and you’ll be a better person

Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a part-time PhD student with a full-time job, choosing what to read often feels like a moral dilemma as much as anything else. That book on MPI Programming? On the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, or one of the many novels I have bought and not got round to reading. Each carries its own little parcel of guilt as well as pleasure.

But a new scientific study – reported briefly  in this week’s New Scientist and published in Science Xpress (the abstract is here) suggests that good novels really do broaden the mind and allow us to better understand fellow human beings.

A study in which volunteers were randomly divided into one of three groups – readers of (quality) literary fiction, readers of popular fiction and non-readers showed that readers of literary fiction were later better able to empathise with other people based on the others’ facial expression (a sign of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ – in other words how you feel others minds work).

To an extent this feels like the confirmation by science of what is fairly or intuitively obvious – surely we have all read novels that have changed the way we feel about the world and other people. In the last few years I can think of The Go-Between and Crime and Punishment as two personal examples, but there are plenty more – for instance Things Fall Apart is brilliant for the way it explores the psychological impact of colonisation.


Update: You may have noticed I have written ‘three’ groups, while the abstract mentions five – the New Scientist says three groups, which is where I picked this up from.