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Literary Fiction Promotes Understanding of Human Emotions


[Julia Spranger/Wikimedia Commons]

We do it every day, but discerning a fake smile from a genuine one, or sensing if someone is uncomfortable, or gauging emotional needs of friends and family is no small feat. These crucial social skills, known as "Theory of Mind," promote the complex social relationships characteristic of human societies.

A new study in the 4 October issue of Science 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.

"We hope that our research, and research like it, will play a larger role in public debates about the importance of literature in our schools," said Emanuele Castano, co-author of the paper and professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York City.

"Literature is a widely available cultural resource, and our decisions about the extent to which we support and promote it should be rooted in a strong understanding of its real value," continued Castano.

Each year, more than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults' rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) has dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012), according a 2012 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts on public participation in the arts.

In a series of experiments that involved participants reading short pieces of literary fiction, Castano, along with researcher David Kidd, found that reading literary fiction can temporarily enhance Theory of Mind.

The researchers selected literary works of fiction (like a novel by Don DeLillo) by award-winning or established writers and compared their effects on Theory of Mind to reading non-fiction, popular fiction (a genre book, like something by Danielle Steel or Stephen King), 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. These are all features that mimic Theory of Mind.

This work provides evidence for the value of literary fiction to society, the researchers said, and it comes at a critical time as debates over the necessity of humanities and the arts in schools continue, in particular with regard to the Common Core State Standards — a new set of education standards widely adopted in the United States that de-emphasize fiction in secondary education.

Read the abstract, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," by D.C. Kidd and E. Castano.

Listen to the researchers explain their study in a AAAS Podcast.