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

Honing theory of mind ability over a lifetime allows us to navigate a complex social world, predict what other people want, know when to shut up and when to plow onward, tactfully handle delicate situations, or discreetly wiggle out of a mess.  Sometimes, judging someone’s reaction even allows us to learn about ourselves, such as “People seem to be avoiding me today; I must be coming off as even more irritable than I feel.” 

How They Conducted the Fiction Study

In the experiments in Science, the researchers assigned participants to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction, or nothing at all.  Literary fiction included, among others, finalists for the National Book Award and a short story by Chekhov.  Popular fiction included the current top three selling authors on Amazon including Danielle Steele and Wm. Paul Young.  After the research participants read, they took a number of tests that measured empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.  Those who had read literary fiction did measurably better on the tests than those who read the other forms of writing.

What’s So Great About Literary Fiction?

But why did it only work with literary fiction, not popular fiction or non-fiction?  Here are some ideas. Popular genre fiction, such as romances and sci-fi, often have characters who are archetypal and therefore predictable: the hero, the bully, the rebel, the dreamer, the out-of-reach love interest, the self-made man, the girl next door.  They are in line with reader’s expectations and don’t require a deep look—they don’t require theory of mind—to be understood.  

Literature, however, engages the reader with complex characters who aren’t as stereotypical. So instead of relying on archetypes, characters’ mindsets have to be gleaned from spare but meaningful details, like inferring a hardscrabble childhood from how quickly a character wolfs down a meal, or deducing trouble in a relationship from a character’s glance away from her fiancé.  

Next, in literary fiction, multiple characters often experience the same event, which requires us readers to hold many perspectives in mind, each different from our own. 

Finally, literary fiction more frequently uses stylistic devices such as metaphor, imagery, and symbolism, which give us clues about a character but allow us, the readers, to fill in the blanks.  All in all, readers have to interpret, infer, and fill in the gaps—all markers of well-practiced theory of mind abilities. 

And although developing theory of mind skills is a lifelong undertaking, it seems our abilities can be activated with a just few pages of Chekhov.  So add some of the classics or award-winners to your reading list.  Not only will you engage with some fascinating characters, but your social skills will also thank you for it.

This podcast was written by Ellen Hendriksen, The Savvy Psychologist. Subscribe to her podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcatcher.


Berns, G.S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M.J., & Pye, B.E. (2013).  Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain.  Brain Connectivity, 3, 590-600.

King, Stephen.  (2000).  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  New York: Scribner.

Kidd, D.C. & Castano, E. (2013).  Reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind.  Science, 342, 377-380.