Read and live long

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Some serious folks think that reading fiction is beneath them, non-fiction being the stuff of the truly brainy. But recent studies from a fellow at the University of Toronto reveal that reading fiction “influences” one’s “empathetic response in the real world.” So says researcher Keith Oatley of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at Toronto. He thinks that reading fiction is “…similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator; those who read fiction might improve their social skills. Fiction might be the mind’s flight simulator.”

Neat idea, huh? And it makes sense. If you think about when you read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and how you came away from it not only weeping but with an immense empathy and concern for migrants, you can believe the effect of reading a fiction story about poor people compared to an article about migrants in the newspaper or on TV news.

Because we’re social animals, we like to be together with other people – for fun, for learning, for teaching, for love, for helping or being helped. Reading stories about someone else’s life enhances our understanding and sympathy for the plight of others who we hang out with or who live across the world.

We can get the same effect from movies and TV dramas, but reading actually makes you live longer, too, so why not opt for the book? According to a Yale study of nearly 4,000 men and women over the age of 50 who were followed for 12 years, those who read up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die during the 12 years; those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die.

Because I figured out long ago that I was born to read – and that’s about all I do – I oughta live to around 150.

While reading and thus prolonging my life so I can get to the end of more books, my empathy grows by the page. Therefore, I will not be taking acetaminophen (Tylenol), even though it lowers fevers and soothes headaches nicely because as it dulls my pain (even the psychological pain of social rejection). I have recently learned that it reduces my ability to empathize with others or to imagine somebody else’s discomfort.

It is a human thing to empathize, and to learn that the human habit of reading not only will make us live longer but help us to empathize seems like something we could all be doing a lot of right now, when the world is in such bad temper about people who don’t think like we think they should, or who we perceive as unlike us.


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