Earlier this year, Trends in Cognitive Sciences published insights into the effects that reading has on the reader’s psyche. The research was conducted at the University of Toronto and published by Professor Emeriti Keith Oatley of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development.
The findings were that reading fiction improves the reader’s understanding of others. Literary fiction, in particular, tends to be more heavily oriented toward character development than action and adventure, and it is in reading books that allows the reader to place themselves in another’s position where the greatest benefit is derived. Benefits include empathy — the ability to place yourself into someone else’s shoes — and in understanding people and cultures that we may not come in contact with ordinarily.
Similarly, the study found that those who did not read, especially those who did not read as children, were less likely to understand the world outside of themselves and less likely to have empathy or sympathy for others.
Separate studies were conducted by Professor Loris Vezzali of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. As Vezzali reported in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Volume 45, Issue 2) these studies revolved around reading the Harry Potter books. The findings were fascinating; those who were heavily engrossed in reading the Harry Potter series were less likely to stigmatize other groups of people such as homosexuals, the disabled, immigrants and refugees, as well as those of other faiths and cultures. Even high schoolers who had previously been racist were far less so after reading the Harry Potter books.
The reason, both Vezzali and Oatley determined, is when a person can “become” another character while reading, they begin to understand that character and they almost absorb the character’s experiences into their own psyche. The result is far more tolerance toward people who, on the surface, might appear very different from ourselves.
It is especially those characters that resonate with us that have the longest and deepest effects on us. Reading books such as “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, for example, increases empathy for people who have lost everything; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe or “Roots” by Alex Haley place readers in the position of a slave and results in far more understanding of a people’s plight. In more recent times, “Cast Away” by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson places the reader into the position of a refugee, forced to leave their home, their culture, oftentimes their family, to venture into an unknown world that is often hostile and unsympathetic.
Conversely, when children do not read, they grow up without the ability to empathize with others. If they continue to avoid reading or they grow into adults who very rarely if ever read a book that places them into someone else’s shoes, they are much more likely to view people with differing faiths, cultures, skin color or appearance with suspicion and even hatred. People who have been identified as narcissists or have narcissistic tendencies are prime examples of people who believe their world begins and ends with themselves precisely because they are unable or unwilling to place themselves in someone else’s shoes.
As we move into a future in which the world seems to grow smaller and more populated at every turn, the long-term answer to peace may lie in something as simple as reading. When some cultures or religions forbid people to read — such as those that forbid girls or women from reading — it allows one type of person to dictate another’s beliefs, narrowing their minds against anyone and anything that is unlike themselves.
p.m.terrell is the author of more than 20 books, including two award-winning series set in Lumberton. She is also the founder of the Book ‘Em North Carolina Writers Conference and Book Fair. For information, visit www.pmterrell.com.