Neuroscience and Novels: How the Empathy-Fiction Connection May Be Great For Your Mental Health

Books have the power to make you feel…

“Engaging with fiction,” says professor emeritus of cognitive psychology, Keith Oatley, “is an empathetic act. We are not just book-reading, we are mind-reading. We experience emotions, our own emotions, in the circumstances of a character’s concerns, plans and actions.”1

In so doing, readers undergo a kind of “emotional transportation;” the impact of which, after reading significantly critical novels, like Americanah or The Book Thief, can linger and make sense of the real world for days afterward.2

Indeed, fMRI imaging can now confirm this correlation between literary fiction and empathy; but at an exciting cellular level. 3

Picture busy mirror neurons lighting up in a kind of knee-jerk reaction while you lose yourself in the tender narrative of a wistful Francie Nolan; (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn),4 or the young Marine lieutenant, (Matterhorn), struggling to define his place in the Vietnam War.

“Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”5

And it’s good — not only for the well-being of the reader — but for what it can render and reflect for all humanity.


Aimee Zuccarini is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the East Columbia Branch. She facilitates several book discussions and writes the book reviews for The Maryland Women’s Journal.