By Dennis Abrams
Pam Belluck writes in The New York Times about a study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” conducted by two social psychologists, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at The New School which found that reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or “serious” nonfiction) “leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”
The authors of the study, which was published in the journal Science, say that “literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make references about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.”
In the series of five experiments, the report showed that people who read three to five minute excerpts from “literary fiction” by authors like Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, and Wendell Berry scored higher than people reading “popular fiction” by authors Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Roberts Reinhart, on tests that required them to infer what people were thinking or feeling – a field known as “Theory of Mind.”
Theory of Mind is a relatively recent field, that uses tests to measure people’s ability to read emotions shown in photographs of people’s faces, or to predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a certain situation. “Experts who have studied the correlation between reading and ‘Theory of Mind’ say that the study is consistent with some previous research, but is more powerful because it suggests a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got — of reading literature for only a few minutes. It suggests that people can be ‘primed’ for social skills like empathy, just as, say, watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional.”
The article quotes Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge: “It’s a really important result…I would have thought reading in general” (would make people more empathetic and understanding). “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education.” (Indeed, the authors of the study along with other academic psychologists believe that the findings “should be considered by educators designing student curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which increase the amount of nonfiction students are assigned.”)
The study still leaves many unanswered questions: How long do the effects last? Would several months of reading, say, Dickens or Austin or James “produce effects that are larger, smaller or have no effect?” Does the difficulty of the literary fiction matter when it comes to getting results? (Researchers did not use, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow.)
Even so, recent NBA winner Louise Erdrich, whose short story “The Round House” was used as part of the study, was delighted to hear the results.
In an email to The Times, she wrote, “This is why I love science. Kidd and Castano found a way to prove the intangible benefits of literary fiction. Also, I feel personally cheered. Writers are often lonely obsessives, especially the literary ones. It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value. (However, I would still write even if novels were useless.)”
Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.