Your Brain on Literature

Reading quiet, literary fiction, like Someone, nudges us towards contemplation and self-examination. But according to a recent study conducted at the New School for Social Research in New York, it may do even more. This much-publicized study, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," concludes that reading literary fiction can better the ability to "read" the thoughts and feelings of others. The researchers, Ph.D candidate David Comer Kidd; and professor of psychology, Emanuele Castano; suggest that this is achieved by an increase in empathy and the ability to recognize and share the feelings of others.

But first, perhaps, we should try to define the somewhat ambiguous line between literary and popular fiction. Castano outlines the difference this way: Popular fiction tends to focus on plot, and characters tend to be more stereotypical—the hero and the antagonist are clear-cut from the beginning, while "literary fiction focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters." In literary fiction, the characters are both more complex and less filled in, leaving room for the reader to interpret their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

David Comer Kidd says the difference can also be thought of in terms of the distinction between "writerly" and "readerly" writing. With writerly writing, the reader participates more by filling in the gaps, whereas the readerly writing of genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers more thoroughly prescribes the reader's experience. With readerly fiction, we are taken on an exhilarating ride that is a similar experience for everyone. Literary or writerly fiction requires more participation by the reader. Characters are more complex, less explained and there are fewer instructions on what the reader should think or feel.

This process is similar to our own social interactions. There's nobody standing to the side telling us exactly what the other person is thinking or feeling, nor can we depend on them telling us directly. In fact, a lot of human actions are meant to hide deep feelings and private thoughts, leaving us to use gestures, tone, action, body language and a myriad of other clues to try and figure them out.

Part of the Theory of Mind study was conducted by dividing participants into groups. One set read ten to fifteen pages of a literary work, one did not read, another read non-fiction and the last group read popular thrillers. Those assigned the more literary fiction did better on a test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" that asked test-takers to guess which emotion is best expressed by various actors in a series of black and white photographs.

The researchers say that the study wasn't meant to devalue the experience of reading other kinds of material. Kidd told The Guardian: "These are aesthetic and stylistic concerns which as psychologists we can't and don't want to make judgments about. Neither do we argue that people should only read literary fiction; it's just that only literary fiction seems to improve Theory of Mind in the short-term. There are likely benefits of reading popular fiction – certainly entertainment. We just did not measure them."

In fact, a separate study conducted in 2006 by Keith Oatley Ph.D. director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto, along with several colleagues, found that people who read any kind of fiction tend to be more empathetic and socially intelligent. This study used ninety-four participants who read either predominantly fiction or non-fiction, and were then tested to see if there was any difference in social abilities. One was the same "Mind in the Eyes" test where participants looked at photos of only people's eyes and guessed what they're feeling. The other was the Interpersonal Perception Test where participants watched video clips of people interacting and then answered a question about the relationship between the two. Results showed that the participants who read predominantly fiction did better on these two social ability tests.

But then the research team wondered if perhaps those who are more socially intelligent might be more inclined to read fiction than non-fiction in the first place. To answer that question they conducted another study using two articles from The New Yorker; one fiction and one non-fiction and assigned them randomly. After reading, participants were given one test derived from the LSAT exams and another social reasoning test that asked about the emotions, beliefs and intentions of characters in social settings. The result showed that both readers did equally well in the arena of analytical thinking but that the fiction readers had a stronger understanding of social interactions. Keith Oatley explained the results in this way: "My colleagues and I think it's a matter of expertise. Fiction is principally about the difficulties of selves navigating the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, whatever it is about: selfish genes, or how to make Mediterranean food, or whether climate changes will harm our planet. So with fiction we tend to become more expert at empathizing and socializing. By contrast, readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading and thinking about."

It still could be argued that it has to do as much with the content as with the process. Taking it one step further, Oatley and some colleagues conducted another study where they randomly assigned one hundred and sixty-six people to read either Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog" or a version of the same story rewritten in a non-fiction format. They wanted to find out if there was a difference in how people changed after reading the original or the altered version. Each participant was given a standard personality test before and after reading their assigned piece.

"The Lady with the Little Dog" is the story of Dmitri Gomov and Anna Sergueyevna, who meet at a seaside resort, have an affair, fall in love and end up divorcing their spouses to be together. The non-fiction account was written as a divorce proceeding in a courtroom report and was the same length and reading difficulty and contained the same characters and events, and even some of the text of Chekhov's story. The participants who read the non-fictional version said that they found it just as interesting, though less artistic, as Chekhov's story.

Test results showed that the personality traits of readers of Chekhov's story changed in small but measurable ways more so than those of the readers of the courtroom account. Oatley and his team concluded that "as people read Chekhov's story, they experienced empathy with the protagonists and identified with them so that each reader, in his or her own way, became a bit more like them, or decided not to think in the same ways as the characters. When we read 'The Lady with the Little Dog,' we can be both ourselves and Gomov or Anna. Through stories, selfhood can expand. My colleagues and I also believe that readers of Chekhov's story were taken out of their usual ways of being so that they could connect with something larger than themselves, beyond themselves. This is an effect that goes beyond fiction. All art aspires to help us transcend ourselves."

With debates about the value of the arts and the humanities, the worth of a liberal arts education, and the funding of public libraries, these kinds of studies bear witness to the necessary human skills derived from reading and studying literature.

Take the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" quiz and see how well you score.



This article, written by Sharry Wright, first ran as BookBrowse's backstory to Someone by Alice McDermott

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