Fiction and Empathy

The New York Times reviews the neuroscience associated with reading fictional accounts, concluding that the brain states of readers show similar activation patterns to people experiencing the events described in the book. This, in turn, enhances and improves our own “theory of mind” about others when we read about social interactions:

[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that the advent of the printing press is where we see the start of a shift in European societies’ attitudes about violence. The spread of reading and the growth of political satire correlate with reductions in state violence through the 19th Century and into the 20th (yes, he argues the 20th shows a reduction in violence, despite our intuitions about WWI and WWII). Think Voltaire. Think All Quiet on the Western Front.

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