Yesterday, 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.)