What Good Is Literature?

Empathy is an endangered virtue these days. Its well-being could be revived by the simple act of reading about others.

Author: Beth Ann Fennelly '93

Greetings from an evangelist for a declining field: the study of literature. English majors, like all humanities majors, are on the wane. According to education commentator Jeffrey Selingo, writing in The Atlantic, until 2011, one-third of the degrees from U.S. liberal arts colleges were awarded in the humanities. Now, “well under” one-quarter are. At research universities during the same period, humanities degrees dropped from 17 to 11 percent of the total number conferred.

What accounts for this trend? Probably practicalities. Consider that 2011’s graduates were choosing majors during the 2008 recession. Given the increasingly absurd cost of a college degree, who can blame students for choosing majors in more vocational fields such as business, health and technology? I, too, have college-tuition woes — my husband and I have a freshman, with two younger children approaching the starting block. And I, too, have heard the old joke:

Q. What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?

A. A park bench can support a family of four.

So it makes sense, in a way, that the study of literature is less popular. But guess what else is on the outs? Empathy. A 2010 University of Michigan study that analyzed data from surveys taken over 30 years by 14,000 American college students found them scoring 40 percent lower in empathy than those in the past. And today’s students are even less likely to agree with statements such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” and, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

What’s the connection? I’ve spent the past two decades in the classroom reading readers, and what I deeply believe — and what the emerging field of literary neuroscience is beginning to prove — is that literature makes us more empathetic.

Are we frustrated or sympathetic with Hamlet’s reluctance to avenge his father? When Jane Eyre discovers Mr. Rochester is married, do we urge her to flee Thornfield, or to stay?

During engaged reading, we compare the protagonist’s actions to what we’d do in a similar situation, or what we’ve done in the past. We practice making decisions that have consequences, which is to say, we practice adulting. Cognitive psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls reading “the mind’s flight simulator.” Speaking to The New York Times in 2012, he suggested that “just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Illustrations by Keith Negley

Through the flight simulator of reading, we get “all the feels,” as the kids say. Paying attention to our feelings educates our emotional intelligence, a necessary task because while we somehow assume our emotions are perfectly accessible, transparent and straightforward, that’s very rarely the case. It’s hard work to know what we’re feeling, especially in this airbrushed age of social media that rewards us for masking our authentic selves. Reading exposes us to the fully expressed, uncensored heart of a narrator who has nothing to gain from disguising her vulnerability.

The mind reading we do when thinking through a character helps us develop social sensitivity, as demonstrated ingeniously in a 2013 study by social psychologists at New York’s New School for Social Research. Participants were given five minutes to read excerpts of award-winning literary fiction, popular novels, nonfiction articles — or nothing — then took one of five tests that measure a person’s ability to decipher or predict emotions in various scenarios. In one test, the subjects were presented with a series of gray-scale photos cropped to reveal only a person’s eyes, then asked to identify the expression contained in the eyes from four options, such as “jealous,” “panicked,” “arrogant” or “hateful.” Readers of the literary fiction excerpt scored higher on this test than the other readers — or nonreaders — did. Literature, the study theorized, gives us practice in taking on another person’s point of view, making readers better at inferring someone else’s mental state in just a few minutes.

We stereotype bookworms as paste-eating, awkward loners, but the truth is that reading improves our social awareness by honing our ability to interpret both our own and others’ moods. Reading literature helps us read the room.

How do books pull off their magic trick, transporting us into the body of another person in such a physical way? Taking a look at the brain — specifically, the multiple regions that engage and coordinate when we read — gives us a clue.

One of my favorite authors is Jane Austen, and in one of my favorite studies, doctoral students in literature read a Jane Austen novel. But not on the couch. Instead, they read Austen inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Natalie Phillips, the Michigan State University English professor who authored the study, hypothesized that the subjects, while reading intently, would experience increased blood-flow to the areas of the brain responsible for “executive function.” To her surprise, the students experienced a dramatic global increase, with blood flowing to areas that have nothing to do with processing language or regulating the attention we pay to a task.

Say you read a passage about running through a forest. You’d expect the left temporal lobe, the area responsible for language processing, to light up. It does — but so does the frontal lobe’s motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. In fact, it lights up in the same way it would if you were actually running. Say you read “lavender” or “coffee” or “cinnamon.” You’ll have the expected activity in your left temporal lobe, but also in your olfactory cortex, which lights up in the same way it would if you were actually smelling those scents. This doesn’t happen with fact-based nonfiction — political journalism, movie reviews, Ikea bookshelf assembly manuals — texts that derive their primary usefulness from the quality and applicability of their facts. That Ikea manual might result in a cool bookcase, but if you want to light up your brain like fireworks on the Fourth of July, stock that bookcase with Jane Austen.

In the same way that a sustained workout regimen can reshape the body, a sustained reading practice can reshape the brain. This reshaping is most dramatic with children, as proven first in a 2009 Carnegie Mellon study that focused on “poor” readers between ages 8 and 10. After just six months of a daily reading program, these children showed an increase in the volume of white matter — those all-important tissues full of nerve cells and fibers that connect core functions of our brain — in the left frontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs the use of language. Significantly, this proves that, in response to training, the brain can change not only its function but its structure.

Is it all in our heads? Is there any practical application to this increased brain connectivity? What if I told you that the empathy we feel for characters makes us less racist and more likely to help those in need? 

Adults show a less dramatic but similar capacity for growth, and this bulking up can have a long-term effect, according to a 2013 study conducted on readers between the ages of 19 and 27 and published in the journal Brain Connectivity. First, the students received a baseline brain scan each day for five days to map their resting state. Then they were given homework. Each night, for nine nights, they read about 30 pages of Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris. Each morning, following their reading, these students had their brains scanned, and the results showed heightened connectivity. But the study didn’t end there. After completing the nine sections of the novel, participants were given five days’ rest, and on each day their brains were scanned again. The results showed that the readers’ brains still displayed heightened brain connectivity in this postreading period. “It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” said the study’s lead author, Emory University psychologist Gregory Berns, “but the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

I know, when the semester’s over, some of my students won’t maintain our robust, novel-a-week reading regimen. After all, you can lead a horse to water, and sometimes it just gargles. But I find comfort in thinking that, deep in the honeycomb recesses of students’ brains, the novels linger, leaking their golden honey. And when a student tells me a book changed her life, I know, on a cellular level, that she’s right, on a cellular level.

Is it all in our heads? Is there any practical application to this increased brain connectivity? What if I told you that the empathy we feel for characters makes us less racist and more likely to help those in need?

Consider a 2014 study at Washington and Lee University conducted by psychologist Dan Johnson. Half the participants read a 3,000-word excerpt from Saffron Dreams, Shaila Abdullah’s 2009 novel about a Muslim American woman. The other half read a 500-word synopsis of that excerpt, which retained all the facts but none of the character’s rich interior life, none of the dialogue or metaphors or sensory details that make a book come alive. Afterwards, participants were presented with photos of “ambiguous Arab-Caucasian faces,” some of which appeared angry. When asked to identify the race of the person in the photograph, participants who read the fact-based synopsis were disproportionately likely to categorize the angry faces as Arab. This bias was absent among those who read the lush, transporting excerpt.

Further evidence that reading literature effects our behavior in socially desirable ways is offered by a 2011 experiment at Washington and Lee that had a trick ending. Participants knew they were involved in a reading study, and when they arrived at the lab, they were given a short story chosen to evoke empathy. After reading, participants filled out a questionnaire designed to see where they fell on a research metric called the transportation scale — that is, how deeply transported they felt while reading the story, and whether they’d developed vivid mental pictures of the characters. And this questionnaire concluded the study. Or so the subjects thought. When the facilitator stood up to return to the other room, he or she — oops! — “accidentally” dropped six pens. The study participants who’d felt the most transported by the story were likelier to pick up the pens.

In another sneaky study, this one conducted at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, participants were given “Motholeli’s Story,” an excerpt from a novel about an orphaned girl in Botswana. Again, the students were tested on the transportation scale after completing the reading. But before they departed the lab, while completing the exit paperwork, participants learned that, “although Motholeli is a fictional character, there are 2.5 million real orphans in South Africa alone.” Then they were asked to check a box to indicate either “I would like to receive more information” or “I would prefer not to receive further information.” Students who felt transported were more likely to check the box for additional info. The researchers concluded, “Story-induced affective empathy was . . . associated with helping tendencies.” Your friendly English professor breaks it down like this: Reading enlarges us.

Here I think again of the students struggling to choose a major, or their parents struggling over their children’s struggling because, they fear, the humanities have no practical application. What could be more practical than increasing empathy? Virginia Woolf, writing at the height of World War I, speculated that “the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one’s imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him.” Reading is Red Bull for the sluggish imagination.

I know some folks play fantasy football. I play fantasy fiction-seminar. My draft picks are those most in need of the heightened brain connectivity literature induces, namely world leaders and policymakers. Imagine if, before initiating aggressive military action, leaders had to read a novel from the point of view of an “enemy combatant.” Imagine if, before cutting social services, legislators had to inhabit the interior life of a “welfare queen.” Imagine a power structure even, say, 6.2 percent more empathetic. Imagine if leaders couldn’t be sworn in or launch a missile strike until they’d aced my midterm.

Reading is powerful medicine, but it’s slow medicine. Or: Reading is powerful medicine because it’s slow medicine.

Remember Dan Johnson’s study, in which he gave participants either a 3,000-word excerpt of Saffron Dreams or its 500-word synopsis? One aspect of that study that bears further research concerns the value of investing time in the reading process. My hunch is that consuming the 3,000-word excerpt is more powerful in part simply because it’s longer. According to The New Yorker, “Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”


Slowing down is what we most need, yet it’s what we most resist. What’s the first thing we do if we find ourselves unexpectedly with a spare minute — waiting in the checkout line, say, or even at a red light? We snatch our phones. We lunge to interrupt the white space that used to invite one of our most important tasks: daydreaming, the idle flexing of our imaginative muscles. Our reflective powers have grown correspondingly weaker. Perhaps if Robert Frost were alive today, he’d write, “Whose woods these are, I think I’ll Google.”

Because immersive reading requires more of the reader’s time and participation than click-bait listicles do, it battles the contraction of our attention spans. A reader engaged with a plot, the “and then, and then, and then” of suspense, finds the impulse for novelty subordinated to the desire to complete the narrative arc. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield suggests that a story’s structure, with its beginning, middle and end, “encourages our brains to think in sequence, to link cause, effect and significance.” Because this sequencing is pleasurable, our attention is engaged; because our attention is engaged, our attention spans are elongated.

Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, considers the consequences of our culture’s shortening attention span. Today’s children, digital natives, take the bombardment of stimuli they get from their screens as a given, a constant in their multitasking interactions. The “continuous partial attention” they develop is a different quality of attention than that which allows a reader to weigh relevant details from a story and allocate time to consolidating them. Non-book-reading children develop less complex brain circuitry, says Wolf, which leads them as adults to retreat to the simplest, least dense, most familiar sources of information. This in turn leaves them vulnerable to demagoguery and fake news. The ramifications are staggering. “The atrophy and gradual disuse of our analytic and reflective capacities,” says Wolf, “are the worst enemies of a truly democratic society.”

Today’s students were born into a world that does not encourage reflection. Their world encourages consumption. Their world rewards speed. Their world is not training them for these questions: Did you create today? Did you engage today? Did you contemplate? Did you practice compassion? Instead, their world is training them for this question: Confirm Purchase? Immersive reading, by strengthening the circuitry of the brain needed for reflection and critical analysis, prepares them for the big questions, like who we are and what we’re doing here on Earth.

I’ve been talking about the ways that literature improves us emotionally, cognitively and spiritually, but let’s not forget what it does for us hedonistically. Don’t read because it’s good for you. Read because it’s good. It tastes so good to suck a novel’s sweet juice. And reading not only helps us feel, it helps us feel better. Books render us less isolated, both because we find friends between their covers and because we can feel understood.

Reader — yes, I mean you — what is your darkest secret? What is your deepest shame? Read enough and you’ll learn you’re not alone in it. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world,” the novelist James Baldwin writes, “but then you read.”

The best takeaway from literary neuroscience is that our beautiful brains are tremendously malleable. We can change our minds, literally.

Let’s give it a try. Let’s start today. Go lose yourself in a book. Which is to say: Go find yourself. And, while you’re at it, find the rest of us, too.

And here’s a little secret, but don’t tell my university’s incoming students: They don’t even have to be English majors. However, if they happen to be considering it, I’m easy enough to find. They can look for me outside, on a park bench, the kind that can support a family of four — or one English professor and her stacks of useful books.

Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi and the author of six books. At the University of Mississippi, where she’s taught since 2002, she’s won the highest awards for both teaching and research. www.bethannfennelly.com