I've been a devoted, even fanatical reader of fiction my whole life, but sometimes I feel like I'm wasting time if I spend an evening immersed in Lee Child's newest thriller, or re-reading The Great Gatsby.  Shouldn't I be plowing through my inbox? Or getting the hang of some new productivity app? Or catching up on my back issues of The Economist? That slight feeling of self-indulgence that haunts me when I'm reading fake stories about fake people is what made me so grateful to stumble on a piece in Scientific American Mind by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley extolling the practical benefits to be derived particularly from consuming fiction.
 Over the past decade, academic researchers such as Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness.  For instance, in fMRI studies of people reading fiction, neuroscientists detect activity in the pre-frontal cortex — a part of the brain involved with setting goals — when the participants read about characters setting a new goal.  It turns out that when Henry James, more than a century ago, defended the value of fiction by saying that "a novel is a direct impression of life," he was more right than he knew.
 In one of Oatley and Mar's studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes.  The more fiction people read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and correctly interpreting social cues.  In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if "devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind," they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the "Big Five" personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction.  Once again, they discovered a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities, allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects' social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.
 The ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy.  The imperative to try to understand others' points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.
 Emotions also have an impact on the bottom line.  A 1996 study published in the journal Training and Development assessing the value of training workers at a manufacturing plant in emotional management skills — teaching employees to focus on how their work affects others rather than simply on getting the job done — found that union grievance filings were reduced by two-thirds while productivity increased substantially, thus increasing profits in the financial statement for organizations.  And a study of a Fortune 400 health insurance company conducted by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, looked at the correlations between emotional intelligence and salary and found that people rated highest by their peers in emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted most frequently.
 To bring the subject home, think about how many different people you interact with during the course of a given day — coworkers, clients, passing strangers, store clerks.  Then think about how much effort you devoted to thinking about their emotional state or the emotional quality of your interaction.  It's when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavor of alternate worlds of experience.  Right now, I'm in the middle of Irene Nemirovsky's posthumously published novel about France's fall to the Nazis in 1940.  Her simple sentences sketch a sense of uncertainty, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak — feelings I certainly wouldn't want to dwell on in "real" life, but emotions I'm better off for having taken the time to consider.  That's empathy really.
 From now on, I'm going to feel less like an escapist slacker when I'm engrossed in a new novel.
The article has been picked from hbr.org and has been edited for use.