Want to become a more empathetic person? Stop reading self-help and pick up a great novel instead.


New research from University of Toronto scholars confirms that—far from being a means to escape the social world—reading books can actually improve social skills by helping you better understand other people.


In an article titled “How Reading Transforms Us” published last month in The New York Times, Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology, and Maja Djikic, a senior research associate, both at the University of Toronto, look at a collection of studies over the past few years that show how reading can increase empathy and strengthen social ties.


In each of the studies, researchers measured participants’ personality traits and emotions before and after reading stories against a group who read non-fiction. These experiments revealed that readers of fiction internalize what a character experiences by mirroring those feelings and actions themselves.


“The brain’s emotional responses to good literature do more than forge a connection with a nonexistent personality—they can even alter the reader’s sense of self” said Oatley in a 2011 article published by Scientific American Mind. In it, he outlines the benefits that can be gained from reading fiction as such:


  • Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.
  • Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.
  • A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.


The seemingly introverted act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in valuable human interaction. As Oatley explains: “It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”


Seen through this lens, reading can be regarded as an essential part of any balanced life—a virtuous indulgence that makes booklovers of all ages more compassionate, understanding people.  If—as the studies indicate—the process of entering imagined worlds of fiction improves your ability to take another person’s point of view, then certainly an extra hour of reading a week can’t be a bad thing?


So, while the conventional wisdom may suggest that it’s non-fiction that makes you smarter, science has proven that literary fiction can make you emotionally smarter as well—improving a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling and putting to bed, once and for all, the idea that reading fiction is a waste of time.