How to Improve Empathy by Reading

Updated on July 15, 2019

The World We Live In

There is presently war going on in many parts of the world. Crimes are breaking out with hate crimes being on the rise. School shootings are rampant, as well as child abuse, abuse of the marginalized and minorities, along with other terrible things going on in the world. What if we could teach people to empathize with each other or increase the ability to have empathy? Wouldn't that make the world a better place? One of the ways that scientists have figured out how to do that is by having people read fiction. The act of reading fiction gets people to see things from a different point of view and gets the reader to have more empathy along with better awareness of social standings within a community or culture.

What Reading Does To The Brain

According to "Psychology Today", Emory University did a study that was titled "Short and Long Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain". It was published in the journal "Brain Connectivity". The researchers doing the study figured out that reading improves the connectivity and the function of the brain. It also improves empathy or the ability for the readers to put themselves in another person's shoes.

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind: the ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different than their own.

Facts About People and Not Reading

  • 42 % of college graduates will never read a book after college graduation.
  • Almost 33% of children have the T.V. in their household on almost all the time.
  • Kids between 8 and 18 on average watch three hours of T.V. a day.
  • The T.V. is the least interactive of all media and has been proven to reduce theory of mind.
  • According to a paper titled "The Relation Between Television Exposure" and "Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers" it was discovered that preschoolers who have a T.V. in their bedroom are exposed to more background T.V., have a lower understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, and reduced cognitive development.

Reading and the Brain

The aspect of storytelling in a novel creates a complicated form of communication that causes reactions in many different brain regions. There was a study done where twenty one undergraduate students would read the novel "Pompeii" by Robert Harris over nine nights. When their brains were scanned in the mornings after reading, their brains displayed "heightened connectivity". The central sulcus (a part of the brain responsible for sensations and movement) was enhanced in its connection to other parts of the brain. Also, the left temporal cortex was connection-wise enhanced. It is the part of the brain responsible for language comprehension. The finding that the central sulcus is engaged means that the reader is experiencing embodied cognition which is key to theory of mind and the ability to having compassion.

At a minimum, we can say that reading stories- especially these strong narratives arcs- reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role reading in shaping their brains."

— Dr. Berns

Another Study on Increasing Empathy

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuelo Castano at the New School for Social Research proved that reading fiction increases the understanding, detection, and comprehension of the emotional state of other people, or empathy. This ability is a critical skill when dealing with complicated social relationships. The two psychologists had a group of test subjects read literary fiction, another group read popular fiction, and another read nonfiction texts. The difference between literary fiction and popular fiction is that popular fiction refers to various fiction that appear to be popular with wide audiences while literary fiction leans more to the academic genres like fantasy, horror, romance, mystery, etc. Popular fiction appeals to the general public and what sells while literary fiction is more concerned with deep thought and invites analysis. The psychologists then applied theory of mind techniques to try to measure the test subject's ability to identify emotions in other people. The test subjects who scored the highest were those who had read literary fiction.

What great writers do is to turn you into a writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others."

— David Comer Kidd

How Reading Helps

  • Those that read regularly have higher G.P.A.'s, higher intelligence, and increased general knowledge.
  • Reading reduces stress.
  • Analytical thinking is improved by reading.
  • Reading increases vocabulary.
  • Reading improves memory.
  • Reading improves writing skills.
  • Reading helps you prioritize your goals.

Books on Social Issues

Researchers from Italy's University of Madena and Reggio Emilia evaluated the effects of the "Harry Potter" books on high school students and elementary students. The young people were asked about their views on people who they considered to be different from themselves like immigrants or people of a different sexual orientation. Then, they split the students into two groups where one group read passages from the books focused on prejudice and the other read more neutral and not as heavy passages. After a little over a month, the students who read passages about prejudice and social division showed more acceptance of others and had an increased understanding of social groups and divisions.



The "Harry Potter" books had to do with social issues like prejudice, injustice, and discrimination. Another good book that deals with historical facts and is an engaging fantasy at the same time while dealing with social issues like discrimination, injustice, and prejudice is the book Spellbound by Megan Fricke (which is sold on Amazon). The book deals with discrimination because it is based on the lives of witches or social outcasts. It gets people to think about things from a different perspective and engages them in real historical happenings and human affairs. It is like the Harry Potter books in the sense that it deals with issues of social justice yet at the same time is based on real historical happenings making it an even more effective learning tool. In conclusion, this book would be great for people of all ages, backgrounds, and especially those who want to improve their empathy.

Sources Cited:

The following articles were assessed on 02/25/2017.

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