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russell smith

Is fiction good for you? Studies on how reading fiction affects the brain keep piling up.

Most recently, a paper in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that subjects who read fiction changed their behaviour afterward – subtly imitating the behaviour of the characters they had just read about, an effect called "experience taking." Interestingly, reading fiction even created empathy for people highly unlike the participants.

Last year at the University of Buffalo, researchers also tested students on their empathy for different sorts of supernatural beings – vampires and wizards mostly – after having them read passages from Twilight and from Harry Potter, and found predictable connections. (After Twilight, you're more likely to empathize with a vampire.)

And recent studies in Spain, France and the United States used MRIs to watch how different areas of the brain become active on reading the kinds of words and metaphors one encounters in stories. They found that words like "lavender" and "soap" stimulate olfactory centres as well as linguistic ones, which has led social scientists to conclude that reading about smell and touch is very similar to smelling and touching.

A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Keith Oatley is an expert on these studies and publishes an online magazine, OnFiction, that lists all the recent analyses in this area. One of his own well-known experiments involved getting some participants to read a famous Chekov story and the others to read a rewritten "documentary" or non-fiction version of it. Those who read it as fiction scored higher on empathy tests afterward.

Dr. Oatley, who is by coincidence a published novelist himself, is often quoted by popular media around the world; he is a great proponent of the idea that fiction can give one a better understanding of the motivations of others. His idea is that the identification with characters that happens during narratives is a kind of brain training: With a lot of practice, you gain expertise in the area of other points of view.

Journalists are quick to conclude from all this that fiction is good for you. Anything that increases empathy in a world of violent tensions must be productive. The civilizing effect of all art is something that educated people have always wanted to believe in. Music soothes the savage soul – and journalists tend to be heavy readers who like to spread the gospel of reading.

I am no scientist and so can't find fault with the studies so quickly summarized here – but history does. We know that some of the most educated and artistic civilizations in history have been the most cruel.

When Allied troops liberated the concentration camps in 1945, some of them found leather-bound copies of Goethe and busts of Beethoven in the commanding officers' quarters. The ancient Greeks had slaves. And we've all had well-read friends who turned out to be self-absorbed narcissists, and known Philistine rubes who are fundamentally kind. There's just no proof in history that beautiful stories make beautiful people.

And if reading fiction makes you so empathetic, wouldn't writing fiction – putting yourself in the minds and bodies of so many differing characters day in and day out –make you the most empathetic, understanding and compassionate of all people? How then do we explain brilliantly inventive misanthropic grouches like Maurice Sendak, V.S. Naipaul and Michel Houellebecq?

Furthermore, there's a dangerous corollary to the idea that stories can affect your morality – surely it means that they can corrupt as well?

What about stories that denounce or deride empathy, that describe success and social order through sheer self-centredness (e.g. Ayn Rand)? And couldn't empathy for the wicked lead us astray? Is it good for us to empathize with the hero of American Psycho? Isn't this exactly what conservatives argue when they restrict high-school reading lists to the morally uplifting?

It's funny – no one seems to be researching the corrupting effects of fiction any more, but that danger is a famous theme of great fiction itself: Don Quixote is deluded by the chivalric romances he reads; Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, is misled by the Gothic stories she reads; poor Emma Bovary is led fatally astray by novels.

Look, I think reading is good for you in all kinds of intellectual ways but I would avoid telling young people it makes you better – I am more likely to tell young people that it is morally really bad for you. And it well might be, with all the wickedness and lust and moral unease that complex stories portray. I'm going to try to keep it exciting this way.