The neuroscience of reading, empathy, and happiness

The neuroscience of reading, empathy, and happiness

The benefits of reading are many – in fact, data from around the world reveals that a love for reading is a bigger contributor to a child’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status.[1] Scientific evidence also shows that reading for pleasure contributes to our happiness and wellbeing.

According to the research, reading for pleasure ‘is oriented towards finding personal meaning and purpose and is related to the human need to make sense of the world, the desire to understand, to make things work, to make connections, engage emotionally and feel deeply.’[2]

Interestingly, reading also benefits the quality of our social relationships! This is because high-quality fiction (also known as a really good book) requires the reader’s intellectual engagement and enables the reader to develop empathy [3]. Identifying with a character deeply and following them on a journey cultivates a reader’s understanding and empathy toward that character. This deep understanding of complex emotional situations can then be transferred to the reader’s own social relationships.  

The more you read, the more you empathise! 

A New Yorker article discusses the relationship between reading and empathy in depth.[4] According to the article, a study published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011 showed - through the use of fMRI brain scans - that it’s the same neurological regions in our brain that are activated when we read about an experience, as when we go through that experience ourselves.[5] And this isn’t a one off! Similar results have been reported by many other studies and it seems that people who read a lot of fiction really do have more empathy for others. Fiction works as a kind of simulation through which we can imagine a variety of experiences and outcomes and learn from them without having to deal with them in real life. [6] 

Of course, there is a counter-argument that the pleasure we get from reading derives from the fact that we don’t have to feel for these characters as much as we would if they were real - we know that their problems are fictional. [7] This would explain why people enjoy crime fiction so much!

The more you read, the happier you are!

Regardless, reading makes us happy - if not through improving our social skills and relationships, then through the pleasure of immersing ourselves in a narrative and the opportunity it gives us to escape reality for a bit!

Indeed, reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable calm state, similar to meditation. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.[4] 

So, take a deep breath and open up that book that’s been sitting on your bedside table because it seems undeniable that reading truly does make us happier!  


[1] Clark, C. & Rumbold, K. (2006) Reading for pleasure: A research overview. London: National Literacy Trust.

[2] Cremin, T. (2007). “Revisiting reading for pleasure: Delight, desire and diversity.” In: Goouch, Kathy and Lambirth, Andrew eds. Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading: A Critical Perspective. Berkshire, UK: McGraw Hill, pp. 166–190.

[3] Kidd, C,D. & Castano, E. (2013) Reading literary fiction improves theory of the mind. Science, 342, 377-380.


[5] Mar, R. (2011) The Neural Bases of Social Cognition and Story Comprehension. Annual Review of Psychology, 62: 103-134.

[6]Mar, A. R. & K. Oatley. (2008) The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(3): 173-192.

[7]Keen, S. (2007). Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.