How Literature Changes Your Brain for the Better

Bibliophiles rejoice!  The Savvy Psychologist explains why reading literature not only transports and teaches us, it also increases empathy and enhances brain connectivity. 

Ellen Hendriksen, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #399

Reading Fiction>


Reading fiction has been described as “telepathy.”  We readers come to know a character’s deepest emotions, private desires, and even twisted rationalizations. 

Now, two recent studies show that figuratively standing in the shoes of Jane Eyre, Humbert Humbert, or Sethe may not only foster our ability to understand others, but may also strengthen our own brain’s connectivity in the process. 

A 2013 study in the journal Science made a splash by revealing that reading fiction (but not just any fiction—specifically literature) improves our ability to know what real-world people think, feel, intend, believe, or want.

What Is Theory of Mind?

This ability is called “theory of mind.” We are born with a fuzzy form of it, but it takes years of social practice to refine it, like sharpening a tool.  We try to teach our kids theory of mind skills, saying things like, “Tommy cried when you took his dump truck; how do you think that made him feel?”  This helps them understand that others have beliefs, feelings, and perspectives different from their own.

Now, it may seem that theory of mind is the same as empathy.  Empathy is related to theory of mind, but those skilled in theory of mind aren’t necessarily empathetic. For example, tyrants such as psychopaths or bullies, in order to manipulate or taunt, know just how to push the buttons of their victims and therefore have polished theory of mind abilities, but they use these abilities without experiencing empathy.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.