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Want To Read Others' Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction

Oct 4, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 9:33 am

Your ability to "read" the thoughts and feelings of others could be affected by the kind of fiction you read.

That's the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes," which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people's social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

"I think it's a really interesting paper," says Mar. "It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling."

The scientists who did the study admit that it's hard to precisely define "literary" fiction, but say there is some consensus on how it differs from "popular fiction."

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. "You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy."

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

"This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people's thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life," says Castano.

Castano says he doesn't want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. "But it's unlikely that it's going to train you to read other people's minds."

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

"We're having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities," Kidd says. "Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that's noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Let's say you're in the mood for a good story. You could reach for a best-selling page-turner, maybe a crime novel or a popular romance, or you could go more highbrow, like a literary novel, the kind of fiction that might win the National Book Award.

A new study suggests that the kind of fiction you read could affect how well you can later read people in real life. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that so-called literary fiction may boost your ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The scientists who did this study admit that the line between literary fiction and popular fiction is blurry, but they do see differences. Emanuele Castano is a professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York. He says in popular fiction, the characters aren't that complex.

EMANUELE CASTANO: Characters in popular fiction tend to be, you know, stereotypes and as expected. You know, you open a book of what we call popular fiction, and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What draws the reader in is the plot. He says in literary fiction, the focus is on the characters' inner lives. The characters are complicated and a little cryptic. The reader has to infer what they're thinking and feeling.

CASTANO: This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we're trying to guess other people's feeling and thoughts and emotions and to read their mind in everyday life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, Castano and his colleague David Kidd decided to see if reading literary fiction might make people better at that kind of guessing. In a series of experiments, volunteers were randomly given excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction and nonfiction. For example, a person might have read the first 10 pages or so from a popular Danielle Steele novel called "The Sins of the Mother." Here's a bit of the audio book version.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Although she wielded enormous power and her eyes were sharp, there was something gentle about her face. She was a woman everyone took seriously, yet she was quick to laugh.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or maybe they got the first pages of a more literary work.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My father licked these dry lips and cast about, searching for the smell of food perhaps, the sound of pots or the clinking of glasses or footsteps.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's from "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich. Some of the volunteers were assigned to read nothing. Then, everyone had to take tests that measured how well they perceived people's inner states. For example, one test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" asked people to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and decide what emotion was being expressed.

The group that had just read a short bit of literary fiction did significantly better on these tests of mindreading, while the popular fiction group did no better than people who weren't given anything to read. Castano says popular fiction probably does a lot of good things for you. He likes a good page-turner himself.

CASTANO: But it's unlikely that it's going to train you to read other people's mind, whereas literary fiction, because of, you know, its very characteristics, requires that from the reader.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The study is published in the journal Science, and it impressed Raymond Mar. He's a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto who has investigated the link between fiction and empathy.

RAYMOND MAR: What I think is really exciting about this study is it demonstrates for the first time short-term causal effects of exposure to fiction and its benefits, in comparison to not reading at all or reading other types of genre.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mar says there used to be this stereotype that reading was a solitary, sort of antisocial activity.

MAR: I think what was ignored is that they were entering an imagined social environment. So there's a lot of parallels between imagining oneself in a world of fiction, full of characters, different personalities and different goals, and, you know, actually interacting in the real world.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says so many people spend so much time reading that its social effects really need to be understood scientifically. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.