When you read a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way.
If you read a lot of novels, you will become better at actually understanding other people off the page.
Perhaps fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathize with other people – which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have.
While we’re reading, we’re directing attention outward toward the words on the page and, at the same time, enormous amounts of attention is going inward as we imagine and mentally simulate the characters and places.
It’s different from if you just close your eyes and try to imagine something off the top of your head.
It’s being structured, but our attention is in a very unique place, fluctuating both out toward the page, toward the words, and then inward, toward what those words represent.
It’s a way of combining “outwardly directed attention and inwardly directed attention.”
When you read fiction in particular, you imagine what it is like to be another person.
You find yourself, “trying to understand the different characters, their motivations, and their thoughts.
Many of the most important advances in human history have been advances in empathy:
the realization by at least some white people that other ethnic groups have feelings and abilities and dreams just like them;
the realization by some men that the way they have exerted power over women was illegitimate and caused real suffering;
the realization by many heterosexuals that gay love is just like straight love.
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