A team led by Keith Oatley, a British psychologist (and latterly also a novelist) based at the University of Toronto in Canada, started out on a research project that they hoped would answer these questions: in what ways might reading fiction be good for you, and if it is good for you why would this be, and what is the psychological function of art generally? Through a series of studies they established that fiction isn’t just enjoyable; it enhances your ability to empathise with others and understand life.
Anyone who’s ever been in a book group or simply enjoys comparing views on Harry Potter or a new bestseller with friends, knows that we all interpret stories in different ways because we bring to the activity our personal life experience, knowledge, moods and feelings. These differences mean we engage individually with a story and can find ourselves in furious arguments with others who condemn or defend Mr Darcy’s rudeness and arrogance at the start of Pride and Prejudice. Some of us can see how he can plausibly become a changed man by the end of the novel, and others don’t believe such men ever change their spots. And as for the proud and self-righteous Lizzie...
That’s the great thing about a good work of fiction: no matter how cleverly the writer might try to lead you into thinking about the characters and plot in a certain way, we all react differently thanks to our own history, imagination and the fact that we use the story as a kind of flight simulator in which we explore how we would react in those circumstances and with those people.So for me, it's back to grappling with the utterly alien yet all-too-human world of modern China by delving back into The Interior: A Red Princess Mystery by Lisa See! And now that we're clear it's not a guilty pleasure, what novels might you be reading at present?
“I’ve been doing research on the psychology of fiction for 20 years,” says Prof Oatley. “It took a long time to devise reliable tests that would pinpoint what the actual psychological effects of reading fiction are. Reading about Darcy and Elizabeth or Hamlet or Harry Potter and the progress of their relationships and dilemmas gets you, the reader, practising how to understand others and how they think and behave. That enhanced understanding feeds into your thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. What we’re saying is that fiction has a great ability to help you to develop empathetic skills. The fiction we’re talking about doesn’t have to be particularly literary work. Even moderately ‘schlocky’ novels help to further our understanding of different kinds of people from ourselves and the things they live through. It’s about identification.”