How Good Books Help You Read Minds

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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Skills essential to understanding other people’s mental states and processing complex social relationships can be strengthened by reading literary fiction, according to a paper appearing in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.
PhD candidate David Comer Kidd and psychology professor Emanuele Castano, both of The New School for Social Research, conducted five experiments to measure the impact of reading literary fiction on study participant’s Theory of Mind (ToM) – the ability to attribute various mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.) to both oneself and others.
The researchers selected texts using three different categories of writing – literary fiction, popular fiction and nonfiction. Excerpts of National Book Award finalists and winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction were chosen to represent literary fiction works. Popular fiction samples came from bestsellers or anthology of recent popular fiction, and non-fiction works were pulled from the pages of Smithsonian Magazine.
“After participants read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM capabilities using several well-established measures,” the institution said in a statement. “One of these measures 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 one is the Yoni test, which includes both affective trials and cognitive ones.”
Kidd and Castano explained that they used multiple types of experiments to make sure that the effects of their findings were not limited to one kind of assessment. Throughout the five different types of tests, the authors reported that participants who had been assigned to read works of literary fiction improved significantly more on ToM tests than the members of the other two groups, whose performances on the tests were nearly identical.
The study indicates that the literary quality of the fiction is essential to fostering ToM. While the literary texts used in the experiments had very different types of content and subject matter, each of them produced “similarly high” ToM results.
According to the researchers, the first experiment showed that “reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction improves performance on an affective ToM task,” while the remaining four experiments demonstrated that the effect is unique to literary fiction, not popular fiction or nonfiction. The reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM, Kidd and Castano said, derives from the intellectual engagement and creative thought that it requires of the reader.
“Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of … stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” they explained. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. … We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes.”