By Keith Oatley
Trends in Cognitive Science
(2016) Volume 20, Issue 8, p 618–628
Here is an excerpt:
What is the basis for effects of improved empathy and theory-of-mind with engagement in fiction? Two kinds of account are possible, process and content, and they complement each other.
One kind of process is inference: engagement in fiction may involve understanding characters by inferences of the sort we make in conversation about what people mean and what kinds of people they are. In an experiment to test this hypothesis, participants were asked to read Alice Munro's The Office, a first-person short story about a woman who rents an office in which to write. In one condition, the story starts in Munro's words, which include ‘But here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me. I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous, phony, or at least unconvincing’. In a comparison version, the story starts with readers being told directly what the narrator feels: ‘I’m embarrassed telling people that I am a writer …’ , p. 270). People who read the version in Munro's own words had to make inferences about what kind of person the narrator was and how she felt. They attained a deeper identification and understanding of the protagonist than did those who were told directly how she felt. Engagement in fiction can be thought of as practice in inference making of this kind.
A second kind of process is transportation: the extent to which people become emotionally involved, immersed, or carried away imaginatively in a story. The more transportation that occurred in reading a story, the greater the story-consistent emotional experience has been found to be. Emotion in fiction is important because, as in life, it can signal what is significant in the relation between events and our concerns . In an experiment on empathetic effects, the more readers were transported into a fictional story, the greater were found to be both their empathy and their likelihood of responding on a behavioral measure: helping someone who had dropped some pencils on the floor. The vividness of imagery during reading has been found to improve transportation and to increase empathy. To investigate such imagery, participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine were asked to imagine a scene when given between three and six spoken phrases, for instance, ‘a dark blue carpet’ … ‘a carved chest of drawers’ … ‘an orange striped pencil’. Three phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus to its largest extent and for participants to imagine a scene with maximum vividness. In another study, one group of participants listened to a story and rated the intensity of their emotions while reading. In a second group of participants, parts of the story that raters had found most emotional produced the largest changes in heart rate and greatest fMRI-based activations.
The article is here.