Words on the brain

From a young age, most of us are encouraged to read fiction. Researchers are now finding that reading literary works can alter the development of our brains and help us gain a sense of empathy. 

 Illustration by Millie Mosca

Illustration by Millie Mosca

Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch said the purpose of the novel is to show that other people exist. Perhaps the existence of other people is something only a philosopher could doubt, but what Murdoch really meant is that fiction is evidence of other people’s inner worlds. Yet the very idea of literature having a purpose is contentious. With advances in technology, as well as the interest of scientists, the question of literature’s purpose is no longer limited to literary critics and novelists. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to explore how reading fiction affects our minds and brains – and they’ve found that literature may be more than mere escapism.  

In order to ponder the purpose of literature, first consider your everyday experience: the kaleidoscope of thoughts, emotions and sensations that we call consciousness. In each waking moment, we’re aware of the sights and sounds around us. Those external stimuli may trigger memories of our past, which in turn provoke worries about the future. How many of those miniscule experiences do we remember – truly remember – just a few minutes, hours or days later? To what extent are those experiences seen and understood by other people, even those closest to us? And how much of other people’s inner experiences do we witness? As we pass through life, we only have unadulterated access to our own private thoughts and feelings. That is, unless other people take a pen to the page, or fingers to a keyboard, and write them down. 

The award winning author Ann Pratchett argues that reading fiction “gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we've never met.” This is possible because fiction enables us to live lives that “we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.” After all, some of the people we know best have never existed. Jay Gatsby, Harry Potter, Huck Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Mrs. Dalloway – these are all people who live in the hearts of many. They have inspired, they have given meaning, they have comforted at night – when we step into the shoes of these characters we see the world through their eyes, but what effect does this have on us?

   Some of the people we know best have never existed, such as fictional boy wizard Harry Potter    .     ActuaLitté/  Flickr    (CC BY 2.0)

Some of the people we know best have never existed, such as fictional boy wizard Harry Potter. ActuaLitté/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Keith Oatley, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Toronto University, has been a leading advocate for the study of literature and the mind. The bulk of Oatley’s career has focussed on researching human emotions, culminating in his presidency of the International Society for Research on Emotions. In the last decade, his attention has turned to the cognitive and emotional effects of fiction: along with colleagues Raymond Mar and Maja Djikic, he proposed the theory that fiction is a “simulation that runs on the minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” 

In his book, Such Stuff of Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Oatley takes the simulation metaphor further, positing that fiction can be seen as analogous to a flight simulator. The opportunity for pilots to learn in a flight simulator was an aeronautical breakthrough, the genius of which allowed people to experience a wider array of in-flight situations than they ever could relying solely on personal experience, and enabling them to prepare for a potential crisis. Similarly, when we read fiction, Oatley argues that the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world. In living through many fictitious lives, we learn how to live our own.

Scientific evidence supports the theory of Oatley and his colleagues. In 2013, a paper by David Kidd and Emanuel Castano studied the effect of reading fiction on Theory of Mind (TOM), the ability to infer the mental states of others, their beliefs, motivations and desires. TOM enables us to realise that other people’s inner experiences can be different from our own. It’s a core component of empathy, and can be considered an important aspect of someone’s emotional intelligence and social skills. Observing children shows us that TOM develops over time; very young children act as if the world revolves around them, and only slowly develop the ability to consider the perspectives of others. A deficit in TOM is also argued to be a core aspect of the autism spectrum disorder, which is a disorder marked by interpersonal difficulties. Clearly, it’s a vital aspect of successfully navigating our social world.


Robert Seyfarth talks about how children develop a Theory of Mind.


Kidd and Castano argue that by reading fiction, we encounter characters whose subjective experiences are complicated and worth exploring. Mirroring Oatley, they highlight that “the worlds of fiction ... pose fewer risks than the real world.” In order to test whether this exploration can increase our empathy, they conducted five separate studies. Across experiments, they compared reading literary fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction and nothing at all — their participants were randomly assigned to read one type of text and, depending on the study, were given various measures of TOM. While they were aware that literariness is hard to define, they deemed literary texts as those that had been nominated for prestigious prizes, and popular fiction as those that were bestsellers on Amazon.com. Strikingly, their studies consistently found people scored higher on measures of TOM after reading literary fiction, compared to reading other texts. 

Reinforcing the results of Kidd and Castano, Olivia Grace Cadwell from The University of Puget Sound conducted a follow-up study using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, which she presented at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Her results found that brain regions crucial in TOM are significantly more active while reading literary fiction, but consistently with the earlier study, these brain regions weren’t as active when people read other types of text. Interestingly, she found that these parts of the brain were active for at least an hour after reading had finished. This shows that a book can change us and stay with us, even once we’ve turned the last page.

   Reading fiction can help children develop a Theory of Mind and understand the mental states of others.     Tim Pierce/Flickr    (CC BY 2.0)

Reading fiction can help children develop a Theory of Mind and understand the mental states of others. Tim Pierce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


A study by Gregory S. Berns and colleagues at the Center for Neuropolicy, Emory University went beyond measuring the brain hours after reading: they looked at people’s brains in the days that followed reading a novel. Berns and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to measure brain activity. Following five days of reading, increases in connectivity were observed in areas of the brain implicated in perspective-taking and story comprehension. The area known as the somatosensory cortex, which is associated with integration of bodily sensations, also experienced an increase in activity. Berns suggested that the increase in the part of the brain linked to our bodily sensations may be related embodying the protagonist in the novel. Maybe when we say we step into a character’s shoes, it really is more than a just a metaphor! Taken together, this researcher suggests that when we read, our brains really do simulate the experience of the protagonist, both in terms of body and mind.  

Overall, science is painting a clear picture that fiction has the capacity to increase our social perception. This is, in part, due to fiction stimulating the parts of our brain that are involved in interpreting social cues. But if fiction can have positive effects on individuals, is it possible that it can have beneficial effects on societies as a whole? Multiple academics, in fields from evolutionary psychology to literary studies, have identified that the rise of literacy has coincided with a reduction in violence. Is this just a spurious correlation, or might fiction have the capacity to transform society?

There is an apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln talking to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was a blockbuster in its day, and it’s been credited with helping Americans to empathise with the injustices of slavery. According to the legend, President Lincoln said to Stowe: “so you’re the little lady who started the big war.” While it’s unlikely that this vignette is true, it does show a societal understanding that fiction can influence people. It suggests that stories can make us empathise with people we may otherwise ignore, mistreat or discriminate against.

   An illustration from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book credited with helping Americans empathise with the injustices of slavery.     Harriet Stowe/Wikimedia Commons    (public domain).

An illustration from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book credited with helping Americans empathise with the injustices of slavery. Harriet Stowe/Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


It’s an established finding in psychology that people tend to have more positive attitudes towards in-groups (people you are similar to) compared to out-groups (people that are different to you), and that extended contact with stigmatised groups reduces people’s prejudice towards them. However, there are practical limitations in utilising such research: stigmatised groups may be separated from us by geographical boundaries, or those interventions may be costly and time-consuming. Fiction, therefore, is an accessible way to create extended contact with minority groups – as Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated in regard to American slaves. 

Italian psychologist Loris Vezzali and his colleagues decided to investigate whether reading fiction can improve attitudes towards stigmatised groups using one the most popular books series ever written: Harry Potter. Earlier research, Vezzali writes, shows that reading stories of friendship between in-group and out-group characters increases tolerance in children. In fact, such stories can reduce stigma towards minority groups, including refugees and people living with disabilities. The problem with those findings was that the stories were written by researchers, specifically for their studies, with the explicit purpose of reducing stigma. It remained an open question whether those findings would extrapolate to published fiction, such as the Harry Potter series. Moreover, Vezzali suggested that reduction in stigma may be related to “experience taking”, where readers of fiction “lose themselves and assume the identity of the character.” In an echo of Anne Pratchett’s earlier quote, it was argued that readers assume “the character’s thoughts, emotions, goals, traits and actions” and experience the narrative as if they were that character. To test this idea, they measured how much readers identified with the positive character (Harry Potter) or disidentified with the negative character (Voldemort).

   A negative association with Voldemort can reduce out-group bias in adult readers.     Tinyfroglet/Flickr    (CC BY 2.0)

A negative association with Voldemort can reduce out-group bias in adult readers. Tinyfroglet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Three separate studies – two correlational and one experimental – found that exposure to Harry Potter novels reduced out-group bias. This was true for children, adolescents and college students. Among the children and adolescents, positive identification with Harry Potter was associated with reduced bias. In adults, it was negative association with Voldemort that predicted reduced prejudice. This might be because who we identify with changes across our lifespans. Adult readers may see their own decisions reflected in the adult characters, whereas as children might relate best to other kids. 

Fiction doesn’t just build tolerance towards minority groups: a study from York University found that fiction promotes equality in other ways. Katrina Fong and her team discovered that lifetime exposure to fiction was related to increased gender role egalitarianism, as well as reduced gender stereotyping. This effect was not found for non-fiction, supporting the idea that it may be the social-simulation aspect of fiction that promotes empathy, rather than the act of reading itself. Perhaps literature lets us see beyond superficial characteristics, to see that, regardless of our gender, we’re all ultimately human. They also found that fiction exposure predicted equal attitudes regardless of what genre they looked at: domestic, romance, science-fiction/fantasy or suspense/thriller. Unlike earlier research suggesting that literary fiction may be more strongly related to social-cognitive function, this suggests that many different types of fiction may increase openness and ideas of equality.

The effects of reading may even extend beyond the human, expanding our worldview beyond our species. For example, the ‘uncanny valley’ hypothesis suggests that humans feel uneasy when they see, or interact with, robots that resemble humans. A study, conducted by Marina Mara and Mark Appel, looked at whether science fiction can change our feelings towards robots. They had people read either a science fiction story or a non-fiction pamphlet, before interacting with a human-like robot. The participants who read the sci-fi story reported reduced feelings of eeriness, which didn’t occur when people read the same information in the form of a leaflet. This led the authors to suggest that science fiction “may provide meaning for otherwise unsettling future technologies.”

   Reading science fiction may change the nature of our relationship with robots.     Troy Straszheim/Wikimedia Commons    (CC BY 3.0).

Reading science fiction may change the nature of our relationship with robots. Troy Straszheim/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).


The researchers who found that literary fiction increased theory of mind still suggested that separate genres may have different benefits, which may not have been measured in their studies. Other academics have suggested that it is not the genre of a book that’s important, but it’s how we read a text that matters; for example, reading a Jane Austen novel closely results in different brain activity than skimming it casually. But it could be that there are overall effects of reading fiction, as well as specific effects unique to certain genres. Science fiction, for example, seems to be uniquely placed in helping people find meaning in emerging technologies; it may also give people comfort as everyday life changes in response to new inventions. With my tongue firmly in my check, I propose that Iris Murdoch’s aphorism at the beginning of this article needs to be revised: the purpose of literature is to show that other people – and humanoid robots – exist.

Ultimately, science seems to support what authors, literary critics and philosophers have alluded to for years: fiction can increase our empathy for others, make us more socially aware, and provide us with meaning in an uncertain, ever-changing world.

Edited by Jessica Herrington and Sara Nyhuis, and supported by Florienne Loder.