Science Proves Reading Literature Improves Your Soul

LiteratureBradcalkins: DreamstimeYesterday, Science published a study, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," that found that reading good literature helps one understand the mental states of other people. As the press release from Science explained:

Recent research has charted the development of the skills that support inferences about what others are thinking and feeling, also known as "Theory of Mind," or ToM. A new study shows that reading literary fiction (works often thought of as being more serious or high-brow than mainstream fiction) recruits the emotional components of Theory of Mind in adults. In a series of experiments that involved participants reading short pieces of literary fiction, David Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that reading literary fiction can temporarily enhance ToM.

The researchers selected literary works of fiction by award-winning or established writers and compared their effects on Theory of Mind to reading non-fiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. For example, in one experiment participants were randomly assigned to read one of six short texts. Participants were then asked to look at photographs and identify the emotions of people with different facial expressions. Individuals who read literary fiction gauged the emotions of others more accurately compared with those who read non-fiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

To explain these results, the authors contend that reading literary fiction seems to expand our knowledge of others’ lives, forces us to perceive the world simultaneously from different viewpoints, and helps us recognize our similarity to characters; all features that mimic Theory of Mind. This work provides evidence for the value of literary fiction to society, and it comes at a critical time as debates over the necessity of humanities and the arts in schools continue.

The New York Times was so excited by the results that it ran a story about them on its front page today:

In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection. “Bamboo Steps Up” was another.

After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed....

The researchers ... found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

So there you have it, reading literature improves your soul. I do, however, want to pick a bone with the Times regarding its headline for the article: "For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov." I have recently seen productions of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, and by the end of each play, I wanted kill the characters and myself to put us all out of our collective miseries. Is that empathy? You decide. (On the other hand, I highly recommend the new Chekhov take-offs, Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike, and Stupid Fucking Bird.)

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The researchers ... found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction.

    WRONG. Read the Twilight books and you will be able to delve deeply into the souls of angsty teens everywhere.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Reading 50 Shades of Grey tells you everything you need to know about understanding women.

  • Tim||

    What about highbrow porn, like "Masturbationpiece Theatre"

  • sloopyinca||

    Can't I just get there by staring into an empty void?

  • Tim||

    eventually the void stares back.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    I always pictured Fist as a Garfield books kinda guy.

  • The DerpRider||

    Does it help with capitalization?

  • sloopyinca||

    Science Proves Reading LIterature Improves Your Soul

    It certainly doesn't improve your fucking proofreading, Bailey.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    and by the end of each play, I wanted kill the characters and myself to put us all out of our collective miseries.

    Oh Bailey...

  • Ron Bailey||

    TD & s: Calm down. Point made. Have a splendid weekend.

  • The DerpRider||

    Just busting your chops. Looking forward to 5pm. Enjoy your weekend.

  • sloopyinca||

    Yes! Somebody finally took me seriously.

    Now to go find a bunch of asshole cop stories for the PM Links.

    ( I was just busting balls, Bailey.)

  • sloopyinca||

    Question of the day: Does Lucy Steigerwald read literature?

  • Tim||

    Don't start with your Lucy shit again...

  • Rich||

    they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed

    Then they studied 36 photographs of bite marks and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed.

  • Marc F Cheney||

    NYT readers read litfic, and they're the worst class of humans ever, except for maybe Nazis.

    So that f***s that little theory.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    People with Asperger's typically lack theory of mind. That's their core deficit. I homeschooled my youngest who's an Aspie and used mainly literature doing so. He now attends a school that specializes in educating gifted aspies and is one of the more socially capable students there. So, as a data point of one - my experience supports the premise of the article.

    Many aspies struggle mightily with understand lit, but the struggle is well worth it when they connect to it. My son enjoys science fiction a great deal (surprise!). Enders Game was a favorite, but he also really enjoyed Huck Finn and Animal Farm.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Well Ronald, what is it, that it is, this Theory of Mind. Well, this is what it is. Mind theory, that I have, that is to say, which is mine... is Mind.

  • Floridian||

    Yes but what does reading H&R do for the soul?

  • Ron Bailey||

    F: Cleans, launders, shines, and generally brightens the souls of all readers.

  • Floridian||

    I was going to guest "compels you to drown your soul in whiskey."

  • Oso Politico||

    Yeah, and that Raskolnikov character is a real example setter. This whole thing sounds like a rationalization for pursuing a degree that results in mucho disempleo. My personal favorite is Underwater Black Studies 101.

  • Enough About Palin||

    "Underwater Black Studies 101"

    So Emmitt Till then?

  • Oso Politico||

    I had to google that one. I was around at that time, but am pretty sure it is not the reason for any number of worthless degrees with respect, to race or gender.

  • Alien Invader||

    Title says

    Science Proves Reading Literature Improves Your Soul

    but article says

    "....found that reading literary fiction can temporarily enhance ToM."

    Somehow this does not inspire me to RTF. In other news, green paint can temporarily alter the theoretical appearance of your skin.

    But I'm prejudiced. I've found that most high brow literature isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Most any page from The Grapes of Wrath (like Ron) makes me want to kill all the characters in the book and then myself, to put us out of our collective miseries.

    There is no empathy in this, only a desire to end the pain.

  • ||

    What the hell counts as "literary" fiction?

    I have a hard time figuring out if there is any meaningful distinction between genre novels and "literature", aside from that "literature" is beloved by elites and generally is composed of contemporary dramas. But why is a contemporary drama supposed to be superior to (say) a dystopian sci-fi novel like "We" (which incidentally is fucking awesome, go read it), and why would contemporary dramas make you better at Theory of Mind than spy novels or romances? There's really no discernible reason why it would make any different whether the setting is present day, 200 years ago, or on an alien planet or a fairy-tale forest.

  • Flemur||

    "Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM [Theory of Mind]."

    Thinking about other peoples' thoughts helps one think about other peoples' thoughts - temporarily. I bet that thinking about electricity temporarily enhances ToE [Theory of Electricity]. Where'd that stupid "soul" crap come from?

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