Can reading literature help develop empathy? The opinion of cognitive scientists.

Published in:  21st century skills, Education

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

Educators “should not dismiss” the role that classic literature can play in developing empathy: by understanding how great novelists put themselves into the shoes of characters who are completely unlike themselves, students can learn to do the same with their neighbours from a different walk of life. So says the author of a recent article by @Acer for Education (1), who adds that empathy is one of the top skills for the future, together with communication. The two are very closely linked, as, in order to communicate effectively, you need to understand the “human emotional responses” of those you are communicating with. It is equally important that educators encourage their students to socialise with people they would not normally mingle with, expose them to points of view other than their own, and show them the importance of listening to understand rather than to reply.

The theory that reading literature can affect the reader is not new, of course. But recent studies in the “neuroscience of literature” show that there may be a scientific basis to support it. In a blog post from last year we wrote about the effects of reading on the brain, inspired by a fascinating article on LitHub by Maryanne Wolf, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, where she is also Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research (2). The article referred, inter alia, to studies by cognitive scientist Keith Oatley, who has demonstrated a strong relationship between reading fiction and the involvement of the cognitive processes known to underlie both empathy and theory of mind. Oatley and his York University colleague Raymond Marr suggest that the process of “taking on another’s consciousness” in reading fiction and the nature of fiction’s content-where the great emotions and conflicts of life are regularly played out-not only contribute to our empathy, but represent what the social scientist Frank Hakemulder called our “moral laboratory.” (3). 

Will reading literature survive the increasingly fast and “visual” world we live in? Reading requires “cognitive patience, says Maryann Wolf. What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different, she asks. And what will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? This is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, which can lead to belligerent forms of intolerance, she warns. Empathy, she says, is not solely about being compassionate toward others; it is also about a more in-depth understanding of the other, an essential skill in a world of increasing connectedness among divergent cultures. 


1) http://eu-acerforeducation.acer.com/learning-skills/improving-students-communication-skills-for-their-future/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CommSkills_30.01.19

2) https://lithub.com/what-does-immersing-yourself-in-a-book-do-to-your-brain/

3) Frank Hakemulder teaches Media Psychology and Communication at the Utrecht University, The Netherlands. He specializes in the psychology of literature, focusing on the effects of reading literary texts on outgroup attitudes and moral self-concept. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frank_Hakemulder

Photo credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash