Knowledge is Power: Does Reading Make You A Better Person?

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Any lover of books will tell you that those who read are superior to all others, but could their quixotic presumptions actually be true? Is their perceived superiority actually a result of their ability to better understand the world around them, or more specifically, the people?

Delusions of grandeur? Not so, according to several studies on the subject. Recent research projects show that reading not only improves cognitive functions, but may also make you more empathetic, more open minded and less racist.

A group at University of Toronto led by psychologist Maja Djikic, carried out an experiment with 100 university students. Students were asked to read one of eight fiction stories and one of eight non-fiction essays written by authors including Wallace Stegner, Jean Stafford, and Paul Bowles. The non-fiction essays were written by George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Jay Gould, among others. The participants were then asked to take a survey that measured their emotional need for certainty. One of the main aspects of bigotry is a general misunderstanding of others, coupled with a fear of the unknown, and the Toronto team’s findings show that readers of literature seems more likely to embrace the unknown. “Exposure to literature,” the researchers write in the Creativity Research Journal, “may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.”

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It is easy to believe that exposure to classic literature would be useful in expanding one’s mind, but literary fiction as a whole may be equally beneficial.

Researchers in Italy recently carried out three separate studies with groups of children and young adults from the elementary to college levels who had read the Harry Potter series. While thought by many to be little more than entertaining, a majority of the children involved demonstrated an “improved attitude toward refugees.”

According to the research team, led by Loris Vezzali of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, this suggests that “reading the novels can potentially tackle actual prejudice reduction.”

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Esteban Diacono from his 2007 Darth Vader in Real life series

While the study revealed that older audiences were less affected by the themes of the whimsical series, the idea that children who identified closely with the title character picked up on the social commentary woven through the book – themes that had not been directly pointed out to them – shows the power of a well told story

So how can this be? How does identifying with a little boy, or even reading an enlightened essay, help to open our minds? Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York may have found the answer. The team randomly assigned 1000 participants various works of literature, ranging from extracts of popular fiction such as bestseller Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or more literary texts, such as Orange-winner The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, Don DeLillo’s “The Runner“, from his collection The Angel Esmeralda, or work by Anton Chekhov.

Research found that those who read more literary works were then able to more accurately identify emotions in others. This heightened level of empathy may be the very thing that makes readers more likely to be open minded, and more accepting of those from different cultures.

Thoreau empathy quote Knowledge is Power: Does Reading Make You A Better Person?

The human capacity of understanding those who are different seems to be exponential expanded through the reading of literature. Whether it be the literary classics of greats like Henry David Thoreau or the entertaining works of Rowling, taking a journey in someone else’s shoes opens readers’ eyes to the hearts and minds of others.

So, while readers may not be better people it does seem they are, at the least better equipped to be understanding and open minded.

Are you a reader? Do you find yourself more able to identify with others? Let us know in the comments below, or join in the conversation on our Facebook page.


Images: Grammerly, WordPress, Inspirably, Esteban Diacono

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