How Great Books Work Their Effects On Us
Reading fiction gives us license to experience emotions without the need for self-protection, writes Brian Krans on the website HealthLine. Since the events you’re reading about don’t follow you into your own life, you can feel strong emotions freely:
“That’s what a new study conducted in the Netherlands reveals about our reading habits and the effect they can have on our psyches. The study, published in PLOS ONE, examines how people experience empathy after reading fiction they find engaging.
The key metric the researchers used is ‘emotionally transported,’ or how deeply connected we are to the story. Previous research has shown that when we read stories about people experiencing specific emotions or events, it triggers activity in our brains as if we were right there in the thick of the action.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron put it: ‘A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.’
The Dutch study found that good fiction—the kind that sucks you in with characters you can identify with—can have a lasting effect on a person’s expression of empathy. Bad fiction, the kind you can’t really get into, has exactly the opposite effect.
Researchers asked 163 college students to read stories, chosen so that readers could identify with the main characters and be transported into the fictional world.
Subjects each ranked how well they identified with the stories, their level of engagement with the material, and any feelings of empathy they experienced; researchers followed up with the students one week after they read the stories.
Those students who said they were transported into the fictional stories showed the greatest level of empathy right after reading and for up to a week thereafter. Researchers found that fiction that engages the reader can have a ‘sleeper effect,’ in which the full emotional effects manifest over time.
‘Fictional narratives are more likely to influence behavior over the course of a week rather than directly after the narrative experience,’ the authors conclude, ‘because the process of transformation of an individual needs time to unfold.’
Those who read nonfiction stories reported no changes in their levels of empathy. The most surprising finding is that those participants who read fiction but who weren’t transported into the story had lower levels of empathy overall. It seems the experience left them a little bitter.”
So much good stuff to ponder here. First, that striking quote from William Styron—who hasn’t felt, at the end of a truly great novel, a little exhausted and wrung out—as if, as Styron says, we’ve been living several other lives in addition to our own?
Second, the idea of a “sleeper effect”—the way a novel’s impact unfolds over time. I’ve often found myself musing about a novel (or a great movie) for weeks afterward, as it works its effects on me only gradually.
And third, the notion that nonfiction produces no change in empathy, and that bad fiction reduces empathy. I can see the logic of the latter finding—perhaps bad fiction makes us doubt that genuine human connection is possible?—but I wonder about the former. Really great nonfiction (I’m thinking of books like The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, and even Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank) transports us every bit as much as great fiction.
What books transport you, and do you feel that they’ve made you a better person?
I remember once missing my subway stop because I was so transported by the George Eliot novel Middlemarch. I also remember—and my husband does too!—meeting him at the airport and not even noticing that he had gotten off the plane because I was so wrapped up in The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins.
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, check out an article I wrote for The New York Times, “Your Brain On Fiction.” And please share your thoughts!