Reading Fiction Could Boost Your Partner’s Ability to Empathize, Says Science

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Portrait of a man lying on his couch holding a book

If your significant other is great, but maybe not so good at feelings, hand them a book — according to a new study, the prescription might be fiction.

As anyone who’s ever read Anna Karenina (or Charlotte’s Web, whatever) knows, the best novels make you lose yourself in the lives of the characters. But researchers at Emory University say books don’t just make you empathetic while you’re reading — they can also increase your capacity for empathy once you’re finished.

The researchers had 21 people read Pompeii, a 2003 Robert Harris thriller, in 30-page increments over the course of 19 days. Each day, researchers administered a reading comprehension test to make sure everyone had done their homework and scanned the subjects’ brains, looking for changes in neural behavior. They continued the brain scans for five additional days after everyone had finished the novel to track any lasting side effects.

And there were lasting side effects: Even after the tale of love and loss in the shadow of Vesuvius was over, the subjects had heightened activity in the parts of the brain that help you process touch, feel movement, and visualize actions without actually performing them. In other words, after you’ve read fiction, you’re more able to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Like Pompeii‘s citizen-hero Marcus Attilius Primus. Or, you know, your girlfriend.

The Emory team isn’t making any promises as to how long the empathy boost lasts, but the study’s lead author, Gregory Berns, says the effects might hold for awhile. “The fact that we’re detecting [neural changes] over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

So the next time you’re at the bookstore, skip the self-help aisle — the answer to your relationship woes just might lie in fiction.