In a recent study published in the Science journal (18 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 377-380 ) two researchers (David Kidd and Emanuele Castano) have discovered that reading literary fiction improves our capacity to understand others and to be empathetic. The term ‘literary fiction’ encompasses the kinds of books that explore the feelings and motives of characters, and as such when we read this kind of fiction we engage with the narrative by engaging with the characters. In their study, Kidd and Castano, show that we are able to make better judgments with regard to what is called Theory of Mind and “Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” The study showed that those test subjects who read literary fiction, as opposed to subjects who read non-fiction, popular fiction or no fiction were better able to pass tests which explored aspects of Theory of Mind, such as the capacity to empathise. In one test, subjects were asked to assess and correctly attribute emotional states to facial expressions and those who had read a passage of literary fiction were better able to empathise or correctly identify the emotional state.
So time to get out that list of Nobel, Miles Franklin or Man Booker prize winners and dip in to see what difference a few moments with a great writer might might make.