Why Does Reading Build Empathy?

Do you ever wonder— why does reading build empathy in people? It might seem like a simple question with a simple answer. But, like most outwardly simple questions, it might be more nuanced than you initially think. 

It makes sense that humans build empathy through interpersonal interactions. Spending time with friends and family, learning how a careless word or action can hurt, or watching the news and witnessing devastating events are logical moments that help to nurture empathy. But why does reading help to build empathy as well?

It might have a little bit to do with biochemistry. And, it might have a lot to do with that natural human desire to connect with others.

Why Do We Need Empathy?

Contrary to popular belief, the “survival of the fittest” does not mean that the apex competitor wins all the marbles. In nature, it means that the creature most suited to its environment will live on. 

Unfortunately, in modern times, this phrase is misinterpreted to mean that the physically strongest or most cunning will always beat out everyone else.

But human beings are not like snakes or polar bears. We are not an isolated bunch. We are community-oriented, highly-social people who love to communicate with each other and share our knowledge far and wide. This is the kind of environment we live in, and this is the kind of environment a person needs to navigate correctly, if they want to live successfully.

In this kind of group structure, empathy is a key to fitting in. It is key to being able to understand others, and find a place in the world and society as a whole. Those without empathy, are doomed to wander in an unsatisfying and lonely existence. 

So, how do we cultivate such an integral skill?

How Do We Develop Empathy?

As previously mentioned, there’s no one path to becoming an open and warm-hearted person. Neuroscience proves that human beings are born with a natural tendency towards empathy. However, these skills still need nurturing.

In general, humans learn to show compassion for each other by watching other people act in a caring manner. The most essential part of this process is that every individual is shown loving compassion by their caregiver and most immediate community members.

While that is the primary process of learning empathy, there are ways to develop the skill further. The most common one is through experiencing fictional stories. Fiction allows the listener, or reader, to insert themselves into the narrative. In a story, they experience emotions, circumstances, and troubles that they otherwise might not come across.

Fundamentally, empathy is someone’s ability to understand another person’s emotional state. Stories and reading help to cultivate this skill in a very organic and rewarding manner.

How Does Reading Build Empathy?

Reading builds empathy by placing the reader in “another person’s shoes”. In some ways, reading a novel is similar to talking with a friend. In both instances, a person reflects on a situation that is outside of themselves. The key is, they take it in with an emotional connection.

When a person reads, they develop their emotions and mind. For instance, readers are more likely to sit with beliefs that don’t align with their own. Readers can understand a belief without necessarily accepting it. People who read are also more likely to identify with a group of people who are different from them. 

So how does it happen? What is the magic inside of the pages? 

Stories stimulate an innate craving for connection. And once that bond is created between the reader and the subject of the story, a person no longer sees those characters, or the real life people that resemble them, as “the other”. The reader understands their fears, joys, wants, and pain. 

That understanding lasts, even after the final page is read.

Do You Want to Help Build Empathy Through Reading?

When a community reads together, they are united together. If you are passionate about helping us spread the joy of reading through our local communities in Chicago IL, and all of Cook County, donate to Our Future Reads today!

We accept both monetary donations and book donations. Together, we can get as many books as possible to those in need and create a more empathetic world for us all.

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