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Why reading fiction may just make you a better person

Want to become a better person this summer? Skip the how-to books and try reaching for a novel.

According to York University psychologist Raymond Mar, reading fiction may help people become more empathetic. In a recent presentation at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Washington, Mar suggested that our brains react to fictional tales much in the same way as they do to real-life social situations. And as anyone who's ever cried while reading Les Misérables or laughed out loud at a Dilbert comic strip can attest, it's possible to feel real emotions in response to made-up characters.

"When people read stories we invoke personal experiences. We're relying not just on words on a page, but also our own past experiences," Mar said in a press release.

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"Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships," he added.

In his past research, Mar found that participants who had read more fiction were better able to decipher the mental states of people pictured in photographs. Interestingly, non-fiction bookworms did not share the ability to accurately interpret social cues.

The empathy-boosting power of fiction may be all the more important to children's development. Mar noted that children between the ages of 3 and 5 begin to acquire a theory-of-mind, or an understanding that other people think differently from them. Around the same time, they also begin to be able to put themselves in the shoes of storybook characters.

While parents are encouraged to read frequently to their children, they probably needn't look far to find books that will exercise their youngsters' empathy. Mar pointed out that the majority of books typically read to preschoolers involve theory-of-mind concepts, referring to characters' mental states and even more complex ideas, such as false beliefs and situational irony.

Scientific support for fiction aside, as The Globe's Elizabeth Renzetti notes, the assumption that only non-fiction works have intellectual heft is just plain annoying. So, what's your favourite work of fiction?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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