My sister, Shelley, is a big fiction reader. She recently sent me a link to an article that suggests that people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don’t. Suellen, of course, is also a big fiction reader. (She highly recommends All The Light We Cannot See).
As for me … well, I mainly read nonfiction. So, does that mean that Shelley and Suellen are both more empathetic than I am? And how does fiction – and imagination – affect us emotionally and biologically?
First, there’s the question of cause and effect. Does reading fiction make people more empathetic or do empathetic people read more fiction? To sort his out, Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp conducted several controlled studies comparing fiction to nonfiction. (Click here).
Bal and Veltkamp found that reading fiction does indeed stimulate empathy if the narrative creates “emotional transportation.” By this they mean that the story absorbs the reader and transports them to a fictional world. In other words, a really good story that sucks you in can make you more empathetic.
The general idea here is that intensely imagining a situation is almost as good as actually experiencing the situation – at least as far as empathy is concerned. Is imagination good for anything other than building empathy?
How about exercise? Can imagining that you’re exercising make you more physically fit? Or, as Jonathan Fields asks: Can Your Brain Make You Buff?
Apparently, the answer is yes. Erin Shackell and Lionel Standing conducted a three-way comparison of college athletes. (Click here). The objective was to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. One group used physical exercise; a second group used imagination; a third (control) group did nothing. The results? Those athletes who exercised increased their hip flexor strength by 28%. Those who used imagination increased their strength by 24%. The control group got nada. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking I should be training my imagination rather than my biceps.
What else can imagination do for you? We’ve known for some time now about the effects of walking through a door. As we’ve all experienced, the mere act of passing through a portal makes you forget stuff. It’s not that we’re inattentive, it’s that walking through a doorway induces forgetfulness. (Click here).
I recently read an article that suggests that merely imagining walking through a door induces the same forgetfulness effect. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw the article. Perhaps it’s because I walked through a doorway. Or perhaps I’m just imagining it.