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Can a read of literary fiction such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved make us more empathetic? Recent research tells us yes, it can. Reading a work of literary fiction is associated with better performance on tests of Theory of Mind, which is an understanding of other people’s mental states.
These small improvements in understanding others however only took effect after 10 minutes of reading a work of literary fiction. If you find yourself having difficulty empathising with a friend’s loss, who knows what the character of Richard Parker in the Life of Pi can do to stir up your emotions.
Reading non-fiction, pop fiction, or not reading at all, however, is not associated with better performance. Emphasis is made on literary fiction’s character-centric rather than plot driven approach, unlike other genres of fiction, which may account for its association with improving people’s empathy.
In literary fiction there is also usually no single narrator, which makes readers think about the characters and make inferences about them. An expert suggests that this could allow people to practice their social skills and apply it in real life contexts.