Reading a piece of fiction could improve one’s “mind-reading” skills, suggests a new study which also reveals that a short story by Anton Chekhov could be more effective than a passage written by Danielle Steel.
Researchers from the New School for Social Research in New York tested people’s performance on tests assessing their “theory of mind” abilities after reading an excerpt from a book or article . Theory of mind refers to a set of skills that people use to understand the emotional states of others. it can be measured, for example, by tests in which participants must match the correct emotion to an image of an actor’s eyes.
In a series of five experiments, the team found that participants who read literary fiction in the experiments performed significantly better on these emotional reading tests than those who read excerpts from nonfiction and popular fiction. [10 Surprising Facts About the Brain]
“Interestingly, this effect could not be explained statistically by changes in the emotions participants reported feeling, their degree of familiarity with the fiction entering the experiment, their level of education, or even their enjoyment of reading the text,” said study author David Comer Kidd. , a doctoral student, said in a podcast for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
For the purposes of this study, Kidd and his adviser viewed literary fiction as works that were less plot-driven and required readers to engage their interpretive faculties to understand the feelings and thoughts of the characters. In contrast, the plot and characters of popular genre novels such as romance novels and thrillers tend to be more consistent and predictable, allowing readers to be more passive.
Without scientific metrics to measure “literality,” scholars have turned to prestigious awards (like the National Book Award and the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize) as a guide to choosing their literary fiction excerpts. Selections included “The Runner” by Don DeLillo, “Blind Date” by Lydia Davis and “Corrie” by Alice Munro. The researchers chose their popular fiction excerpts from Amazon.com’s bestseller list and non-fiction works from Smithsonian Magazine.
Comer explained that works of literary fiction could sharpen social skills, as they engage the reader in a type of social interaction with the characters.
“What a great author does,” Comer said in the podcast, “is they kind of support our theory of mind activity. They help us make inferences without pushing us to make specific inferences, but they lead us into a situation where we really have to use our ability to understand others to their fullest extent.”
The research was published online Oct. 3 by the journal Science.