Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fiction and Empathy

I’ve never loved non-fiction. Unless it is downright riveting it won't hold my attention—and I have a decent attention span.

I’ve had this debate with my book club—Which is better Fiction or Non-Fiction? Which teaches you more? Which makes you a better person?

Now, I know that the answer to this is different for different people. I also know that it’s a complicated question. But I would like to share a bit of information I recently ran onto.

Dr Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto conducted a study in 2006 with these results: (read the entire study here—just a warning it’s non-fiction :)

“Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

To sum it up simply—Reading fiction engages our brain in the task of working out how others are thinking and feeling. It drops us into situations where we have to interpret motivation and actions. Fiction can help us flex our emotional and social muscles.

“How do we explain these results? My colleagues and I think it’s a matter of expertise. Fiction is principally about the difficulties of selves navigating the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, whatever it is about: shellfish genes, or how to make Mediterranean food, or whether climate changes will harm our planet. So with fiction we tend to become more expert at empathizing and socializing. By contrast, readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading and thinking about.”

Fiction is art—subjective, expansive, and moving! I believe both fiction and non-fiction are important. But if someone tells you are wasting your time reading and writing fiction. Tell them to look up this study. And you can use the line I did to win the debate at book club, “Jesus taught in parables.”


I know it’s low to use Jesus to win a debate—but I couldn’t help myself :)


Josiphine said...

Ha! Nice last line. I like both fiction and non-fiction, but like you said only if it really holds my attention. I read a book about Pearl Harbor that was very good....

Donna K. Weaver said...

Woot! See, I knew there was good reason for me to prefer fiction!

Kim said...

Angie - I love this post! There seems to be some friction between readers who prefer fiction and those who prefer non-... And I do agree that empathy, while certainly evoked in some non-fiction writing, really reigns in the realm of fiction. Case in point - I saw The Help last night, and really, the whole audience (myself including) was sobbing :)

Abby said...

There are VERY FEW non-fiction books that I enjoy, but I will admit, there are a few. However, I think fiction can be just as educational (if people have done their research) but it's more fun to read and we can learn without even knowing it! I love that!

Angie Cothran said...

Josiphine-I love history too, but I find I enjoy it more mixed with fiction.

Donna-Me too :)

Kim-I think the emotional connection you make to the characters in The Help is what makes the book so powerful.

Abby-I love to learn by accident :)

Pk Hrezo said...

Ha! That's brilliant! Fiction is so necessary. But also, memoirs can really resonate as well. I'm reading The Glass Castle for my book club selection this month and wow. I don't think fiction can get any better than this real life story. As a fiction writer, of course I'm partial to fiction, but I have to say that real life can sometimes be more interesting than anything made up. :)

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