Reading Literature Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

I read in the NY Times’ health blog yesterday about an interesting study from psychology researchers at New York’s New School For Social Research demonstrating that reading literature can improve your empathy skills.  This was conducted as a scientific study, by giving each participant a few pages of a literary work to read, and then testing how they fared on “mood recognition” — identifying moods in pictures of people’s eyes. The researchers, a psychology professor and a graduate student from The New School, found that after reading literature for a few minutes, people performed better on the test.  The findings were published in the journal Science. 

What was interesting was seeing which books were classified as “literature” by the study. The literary selections included Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, and Alice Munro, among others. The “non-literary” selections included Danielle Steele and Dashiell Hammett.

That science can be used to measure the effects of literary writing, even for a few minutes, is, to say the least, fascinating.

An idea for another study: measure the effects of reading literature via a hard copy of a book versus reading on Kindle. I wonder if the result will be the same.


There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe

Last night, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country. Thirty pages into the book, I am marveling at the simplicity of his writing, at how matter-of-factly he describes the conflicts between Christianity and the religion of his ancestors, his education, and British colonialism in West Africa. He presents the colonialists in a very positive light, as committed educators rather than as oppressors. The voice is a voice of experience and wisdom, that of an old man calmly reflecting on his life and on the history of his country.