You know the type: She’s perpetually reading a novel, face hidden behind the book’s cover, burrowing through page after page without once raising her eyes to the world around her. There is a precipitously wobbling stack of books on her nightstand. You’re sure she’d rather spend the afternoon with Heathcliff than with you.
The avid reader is often scolded for what appears to be antisocial behavior. But psychologists are now recognizing that fiction strengthens our social ties and increases our empathy toward others. Just as flight simulators help pilots-in-training learn to fly, fiction helps us understand the human character, explains Keith Oatley in Scientific American Mind (November/December 2011).
“The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book . . . is actually an exercise in human interaction,” Oatley writes. “It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”
Several studies confirm the heightened emotional intelligence of bookworms: In 2006 researchers found that people who read fiction rather than nonfiction can more easily decipher the emotions of others, simply by looking at their eyes. The following year, researchers discovered that reading a single short story would temporarily improve subjects’ social skills. And in 2010 they showed that exposure to stories made preschoolers more able to take on the perspectives of others.
This fiction-induced empathy runs deep: MRI scans show that when we read fiction, our brains mirror the protagonists’ actions and our emotions swell in response to their plight.
So don’t think of that novel only as an escape. It could be just what you need to connect with your friends, family, and that guy sitting next to you on the subway reading a well-worn crime novel.