Winnie-the-Pooh strolled through the forest, proudly humming a little hum he had made up that very morning. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, rum-tum-tum-tiddle-um. “Well, he was humming to himself, and walking along gaily, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like, being somebody else, when suddenly, he came to a sandy bank.”
Research studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, York University in Toronto, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh confirm that certain kinds of reading promote empathy, or understanding what it feels like to be somebody else. Reading a story lights up the same parts of the brain as interacting with real people.
Many books read to young children encourage them to put themselves in the characters’ minds. How would it feel to be a bear who had just made up a new hum? These children understand other people’s beliefs and wishes better than children who don’t hear such stories.
For older readers, literary fiction has a similar effect, unlike popular (genre) fiction or television. In genre fiction such as romance, and on TV, exciting things happen to characters who are generally stereotyped and predictable. The guesswork is in what will happen, not how people think or feel. Literary fiction succeeds by offering complex characters, explaining them less, and making the reader fill in the gaps. This flexes the mental muscles of understanding.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.