Literature and Empathy

An exciting post on the well blog from the NY Times today describes a study conducted at the New School which found that people who read literary fiction scored higher on tests measuring empathy and were better able to understand the motivations of others.  It confirms some of the arguments that arts advocates have been making–that the arts contribute to a more compassionate, empathetic society. This finding feels a bit commonsensical–so its not altogether surprising, but it is exciting to have some scientific backing (certainly exciting for arts advocates who are always looking for ways to make their arguments quantifiable).

The study tested people who read literary fiction and compared them to those who read pop fiction, non fiction, and nothing. In all cases the literary fiction folks scored higher on their tests. Questions remain as to whether this would be applicable across a larger cross section of the population, and for what duration the “empathetic effects” last.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to suppose that theatre, which like literature invites the spectator into an “other people’s shoes” mentality, might have a similar effect. Hopefully there will be more studies to follow…in the meantime, don’t take that english class out of your curriculum!

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