Reading for Empathy

Indulging his current obsession with all things dolphin, my son and I recently went to see the movie, Dolphin Tale. As the story unfolded, it became obvious that he was putting himself in the main character’s shoes. When that boy swam with the dolphin, my son had projected himself into that swim as well. He rose and fell with every emotional arc of the movie.

While working on a recent manuscript, my editor explained this to me. She said that when children are really drawn into a story, they will read themselves into the experiences of the character with whom they most identify. If they’re reading a Percy Jackson book, in a way, they are living out the adventure as if they are Percy Jackson.

Washington University psychologists recently studied brain scans to determine the impact of reading upon the brain. One of the findings suggested that, according to the authors of the study, “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.” In other words, they internally experience the story they are reading.

The stories our children read help them learn how to feel, and through the eventual resolution of the plot, they learn how to better understand and deal with their own emotions.

I recall this in my own childhood as I read the first BOXCAR CHILDREN book over and over. I shared in the worry and loneliness
the four Alden orphans experienced as they tried to build a home for themselves in a boxcar. Gradually, they figured out how to take care of themselves, and as they did, I began to feel more confident that I could take care of myself too, if the need ever arose. That book literally helped me learn to manage one of the most common of childhood anxieties: losing one’s parents and being alone.

Last fall, The Journal of Psychological Science published a study by Dr. Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young that tested the effect of reading on children’s empathy. Some children were given passages from TWILIGHT in which Edward describes the experience of being a vampire. Others were given a passage from HARRY POTTER, in which Harry and the other first years are sorted into their houses. Following the read, the children underwent a test in which words associated either with vampires or wizards were randomly shown on the screen and they could respond with either a “me” or “not me” answer. The next test asked the children questions such as, “How sharp are your teeth?” and “If you really tried, do you think you could make an object move with your mind?”

Results of the study revealed that most of the children had self-identified as either wizards or vampires, according to which passage they had read. Further, they found that the “fictional communities” they joined gave them the same emotional satisfaction as their actual peer relationships. In fact, Gabriel wrote that reading “fulfills a fundamental need – the need for social connection.”

Interestingly, a 2010 University of Michigan study found a sharp decline in the empathy levels of college students over the last thirty years. This comes during a period in which fiction reading has been on a similar decline. Which begs the question of how closely the two are related.

The ability to understand not only one’s own emotions, but the emotions of others is a critical life skill. And it appears that for anyone with a child in their life, the easiest way to help them develop empathy is to give them a great book.


Jennifer Nielsen is the author of THE FALSE PRINCE (Scholastic Apr `12), and The Underworld Chronicles beginning with ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR (Sourcebooks `10).

Jennifer Nielsen