Reading literary fiction improves ‘mind-reading’ skills – ScienceDaily


Heated debates over the quantifiable value of the arts and literature are a common feature of American social discourse. Now two researchers from the New School for Social Research have published an article in Science demonstrating that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships – and functioning societies.

Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, psychology professor Emanuele Castano performed five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on participants’ theory of mind (ToM), the complex social competence of ” mind reading” to understand the mental states of others. Their article, which appears in the October 3 issue of Science is titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”.

To choose the texts for their study, Kidd and Castano relied on expert assessments to define three types of writing: literary fiction, popular fiction and nonfiction. Works of literary fiction were represented by excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O Henry Prize for Short Fiction; works of popular fiction were taken from Amazon bestsellers or a recent popular fiction anthology; and non-fiction works have been featured in Smithsonian Magazine.

After participants read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM abilities using several well-established measures. One such measure is the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor. Another is the Yoni test, which includes both affective and cognitive tests. “We used multiple ToM measures to ensure that the effects were not specific to one type of measure, accumulating convergent evidence for our hypothesis,” the researchers said.

Across all five experiments, Kidd and Castano found that participants assigned to reading literary fiction performed significantly better on ToM tests than participants assigned to the other experimental groups, which did not differ from each other.

The study shows that not just any fiction is effective in promoting ToM, rather it is the literary quality of the fiction that is the determining factor. The literary texts used in the experiments had very different content and topic, but all produced similar ToM results.

“The first experiment showed that reading literary fiction, compared to non-fiction, improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments two through five showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction,” reports the item.

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM is a direct result of how it engages the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thinking from its readers. “The characteristics of the modern literary novel set it apart from most successful thrillers or novels. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are teeming with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discernible but worth exploring. “

“We see this research as a step toward better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes,” Kidd and Castano say.

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