A novel has the ability to transport us beyond the confines of space and time as we travel with vivid characters through the trials and tribulations that make up their stories.

During the act of reading engaging fiction, we can lose all sense of time. By the final chapter of the right book, we feel changed in our own lives, even if what we've read is entirely made up.

Research says that’s because while you’re engaged in fiction—unlike nonfiction—you’re given a safe arena to experience emotions without the need for self-protection. Since the events you’re reading about do not follow you into your own life, you can feel strong emotions freely.

That’s exactly 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.

How the Study Was Conducted

The researchers from VU University in Amsterdam wanted to build on theories regarding how—and to what extent—fictional stories can change our real personalities.

Researchers gathered a total of 163 Dutch students who were compensated with course credit. In two separate tests, the students read either the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a chapter from Blindness by Jose Saramago, or newspaper reports about the Libyan riots and the nuclear disaster in Japan. These works were chosen so that readers could identify with the main characters and so be transported into the story.

Research subjects each ranked how well they identified with the stories, their level of engagement with the material, and any feelings of empathy they experienced. For the second test, researchers followed up with the students one week after they read the aforementioned stories.

How Fiction Affects Empathy

Empathy, the ability to identify with others, is an important characteristic because while we experience the thoughts, decisions, and emotions of fictional characters we also carry those experiences over to our own lives. Empathy has been proven to increase creativity, work performance, and positive and cooperative behaviors.

Those Dutch 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.

“The current study has shown that the effects do not present themselves immediately, but the effects are guided by anabsolute sleeper effect,” the study concludes. “Theoretically, fictional narratives are more likely to influence behavior over the course of a week rather than directly after the narrative experience 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, if you’ve read a book you're unable to put down, it’s full effect on your life won’t be immediate, but it will be there and it will be positive. If you read something you don't care for, it will have the same effect, but in reverse.

The Final Word

Whether you’re reading Where the Wild Things Are or Into the Wild, if you enjoy the story, you'll become a better person for longer than you realize.

In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” Happy reading.

(The author of this article is also the author of the novels A Constant Suicide and Freeze Tag on the Highway.)