Skip to main content

For a good chunk of the summer, 17-year-old Charlotte Spafford plans to hole up in her room so the words of author Toni Morrison can transport her deep into the American South. Not exactly a sure-fire way to enhance her teenage social life - or is it?

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.

Their years of research - summed up in the current issue of New Scientist magazine - has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts. And follow-up research showed that reading fiction may help fine-tune these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same magazine.

Those benefits, researchers say, may be because fiction acts as a type of simulator. Reading about make-believe people having make-believe adventures or whirlwind romances may actually help people navigate those trials in real life.

"Fiction is really about how to get around in the social world, which is not as easy as one might think," said Keith Oatley, one of the researchers and a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. "People who read fiction give themselves quite a bit of practice in understanding that. And also, I think reading fiction sort of prompts one to think about these questions - you know, what are these people up to?"

Makes sense to Ms. Spafford, whose love of fiction began with The Cat in the Hat and graduated to an obsession with the Brontë sisters and, most recently, novels by African-American authors.

"I've always been interested in people and why they do the things they do," she said from her home in Abbotsford, B.C.

The research, published in various peer-reviewed journals over the past few years, is founded on ideas held by everyone from Aristotle to Charles Dickens, Dr. Oatley said. Throughout history, fiction has long been lauded for its benefits to the reader as a source of entertainment, understanding of the world and as a way to improve one's character.

But now researchers are using empirical methods to see whether those suspected psychological benefits are real. Their positive findings have given fiction some credit at a time when funding for some arts programs is being threatened and kids would rather grab a joystick than a Judy Blume novel, says Raymond Mar, assistant professor in psychology at Toronto's York University, who has researched the science of fiction for seven years.

"Fiction doesn't get a lot of respect," he said. "It has always been viewed as false and as a frivolous thing that had no bearing on real life. But the fact of the matter is, there are effects that continue on after we close the book."

Dr. Mar says this body of research is still in its infancy, and there are still many unanswered questions that he and his collaborators plan to tackle.

For example, most of their research has focused on fiction in general. But would they find similar effects if they looked at biographies? And do sci-fi tales about chasing aliens through the galaxy have the same benefits as Alice Munro's short stories about love and loss? And what parts of the brain are stimulated when literary simulation is in full effect?

Ms. Spafford, for one, says she's seen first-hand how reading has enhanced both her social life and her understanding of the world - "if you use it right, and you don't sit in your room all day. It's just a question of balance."

She heads to the University of Victoria in September where she plans to study psychology.

Interact with The Globe