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For many counselors, retreating into the depths of a novel can often be a much-needed and well-applauded act of self-care. But can reading fiction actually make someone a better counselor? Empathy-focused research in the past few years suggests that this may very well be a possibility.

Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, and Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, have found that people who read fiction on a regular basis appear to be more equipped to understand and empathize with others. This correlation between reading fiction and empathy held up even when the researchers controlled for variables such as personality traits, age and gender.

What is perhaps even more intriguing in Mar and Oatley’s findings is the discovery that this correlation is particular to fiction, with readers of expository nonfiction performing at lower levels on empathy tasks. Fiction readers also reported less loneliness, less stress and larger social networks. This reality provides a surprising challenge to the stereotype of the bookworm with a deficit of social skills.

What then are the implications of these observations for counseling students, who may find themselves with little time to read anything other than the academic, nonfiction texts assigned by their professors? Many educators in the counseling field have responded by turning to fiction as a source for engendering greater empathy in their students who are delving into their initial interactions with clients.

“I’ve used fictional novels as case studies, and they provide students with opportunities to experience empathy in a variety of situations that they might see in their professional work but don’t necessarily experience in the course of their training,” says Marinn Pierce, assistant professor of counselor education at California State University, Fresno.

This exploration can prove quite effective, as recent neuroscience research has demonstrated that the brain does not register a significant difference between real life experience and events in a novel. Therefore, students can turn to fictional characters’ thoughts and emotions to gain clearer perceptions of what their clients may be experiencing. “Students come to me concerned about how they might respond to certain situations in counseling practice, and fictional novels can be a safe way to begin to explore their values and reactions to some of these situations,” Pierce says.

Educators have also found fiction to be a useful tool in the development of multicultural empathy. “I offer opportunities for students to read works of fiction in our multicultural counseling course and ask that students select works by authors different from themselves,” says Cheree Hammond, assistant professor of counseling at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. “Through this opportunity, students are able to gain perspective on lived experiences that contrast with their own, while at the same time connecting with universal themes that permeate the human experience: love and loss, striving and achieving.”

The use of creative tools like fictional narrative in the counselor education field remains a ripe area for research, and educators like Donna Gibson, associate professor in the University of South Carolina’s counselor education program, have been eager to observe how fiction can influence a student’s perspective. Using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a tool for eliciting empathy in school counseling students, Gibson found in her 2007 study that the novel provided a secure environment as the students learned to flex their empathic muscles.

“In this case, it encouraged students to explore their own feelings and thoughts within the safety net of the fictional character Harry’s world,” writes Gibson. “It gave them the opportunity to explore possible hypotheses related to the main character’s personality, family and friends. In this process, many of the students learned to understand different aspects of themselves, which is a form of self-awareness that is often a goal in counselor education programs.”

Though research thus far has only been able to demonstrate a correlational relationship between reading fiction and empathy, the strength of the relationship should not be ignored. Whether there is a difference between readers who engage in fiction for pleasure and students who are assigned novels for a counseling course, however, remains unanswered.

“This is pure speculation, but I believe it’s possible that being assigned to read fiction can lead to similar benefits as reading fiction for pleasure,” Mar says. “It’s possible, then, that assigning particular fiction books that illustrate parallel problems as those possessed by a client could prove helpful.”

Until that correlation is established, however, it is safe to say that counselors and students alike could benefit from tossing aside academic texts and retreating into a novel now and then. A place where thoughts, emotions, frustrations and desires flow freely, without the necessary tug of the therapeutic process.

Kathleen Smith is a doctoral student in counseling at George Washington University. She can be reached at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

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