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Study Finds Reading Literary Fiction Enhances Mind-Reading Skills

Study Finds Reading Literary Fiction Enhances Mind-Reading Skills

Have you ever felt like reading fiction makes you smarter and better able to connect or relate with fellow human beings?

Turns out, you’re right. And now there is measurable, quantifiable proof for that too.

Emanuele Castano (a psychology professor) and David Comer Kidd (previous doctoral candidate) at the New School for Social Research in New York, published a pleasantly surprising study. The study showed that reading a piece of literary fiction enhances people’s ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, which is an important skill for navigating complex social relationships.

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Apparently, literary works by writers such as Alice Munro, Charles Dickens and Anton Chekhov sharpen our ability to understand other people’s emotions more than thrillers or romance novels.

The study

In a series of five experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly given different texts to read. The texts ranged from excerpts of popular fiction like Danielle Steel’s bestseller The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to award-winning literary fiction like the works of Anton Chekhov.

Researchers then analyzed the impact of reading literary fiction on the participants’ Theory of Mind (ToM). The Theory of Mind is essentially another term for the complicated social skill of reading people’s minds to try and understand what someone’s mental state is. In one test, dubbed “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” participants studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and were required to pick (from four choices) adjectives that best described the emotions each pair of eyes showed.

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The questions ranged from “Is the woman whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive?” and “Is the man with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful?” to “Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile?”. Scores were recorded and found to be consistently higher for those participants who had read literary fiction than for those who had read non-fiction texts or popular fiction.

The study concluded that when you read literary fiction as opposed to non-fiction texts and popular fiction, you’ll perform better on tests measuring empathy, emotional intelligence and social perception.

How it works

Castano and Kidd suggest that the reason literary fiction improves ToM more than popular or serious non-fiction is because of the way these texts involve the reader.

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As Kidd explains:

“Some writing is what you call ‘writerly’, you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is ‘readerly’, and you’re entertained. We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.”

In literary fiction, the incompleteness and complexity of characters forces readers to think as they try to understand and make out the characters. Readers have to be more sensitive to subtle emotional and behavioral nuances of the characters. In other words, literary fiction leaves more to the imagination and requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers.

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In popular fiction, on the other hand, “really the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role,” said Kidd. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction de-familiarizes its readers. 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.”

Take away

The literary fiction books used in these experiments had varying subject matter and content, but all produced similarly high ToM results.

“We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes,” wrote the study’s authors.

So, next time you are getting ready for a job interview or blind date, besides taking a shower and shave, try reading a book. But not just any book. Chekhov, Jane Austen or Téa Obreht will help you maneuver around new social territory much better than Fifty Shades of Grey.

More by this author

David K. William

David is a publisher and entrepreneur who tries to help professionals grow their business and careers, and gives advice for entrepreneurs.

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Last Updated on March 24, 2021

8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

We’ve all done it. We’ve gone out and bought useless gadgets that we don’t really need, just because they seemed really cool at the time. Then, we are stuck with a bunch of junk, and end up tossing it or trying to sell it on Ebay.

On the other hand, there are some pretty awesome tech inventions that are actually useful. For instance, many of the latest home gadgets do some of your work for you, from adjusting the home thermostat to locking your front door. And, if used as designed, these tools should really help to make your life a lot easier—and that’s not just a claim from some infomercial trying to sell you yet another useless gadget.

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Take a look at some of the most popular “smart gadgets” on the market:

1. Smart Door Locks

A smart lock lets you lock and unlock your doors by using your smartphone, a special key fob, or biometrics. These locks are keyless, and much more difficult for intruders to break into, making your home a lot safer. You can even use a special app to let people into your home if you are not there to greet them.

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2. Smart Kitchen Tools

Wouldn’t you just love to have a pot of coffee waiting for you when you get home from work? What about a “smart pan” that tells you exactly when you need to flip that omelet? From meat thermometers to kitchen scales, you’ll find a variety of “smart” gadgets designed to make culinary geeks salivate.

3. Mini Home Speaker Play:1

If you love big sound, but hate how much space big speakers take up, and if you want a stereo system that is no bigger than your fist, check out the Play:1 mini speaker. All you have to do is plug it in, connect, and then you can stream without worrying about any interruptions or interface. You can even add onto it, and have different music playing in different rooms.

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4. Wi-Fi Security Cameras

These are the latest in home security, and they connect to the Wi-Fi in your home. You can use your mobile devices to monitor what is going on in your home at all times, no matter where you are. Options include motion sensors, two-way audio, and different recording options.

5. Nest Thermostat

This is a thermostat that lives with you. It can sense seasonal changes, temperature changes, etc., and it will adjust itself automatically. You will never have to fiddle with a thermostat dial or keypad again, because this one basically does all of the work for you. It can also help you to save as much as 12% on heating bills, and 15% on cooling bills.

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6. Smart Lighting

Control your home lighting from your remote device. This is great if you are out and want to make sure that there are some lights on. It is designed to be energy efficient, so it will pay for itself over time because you won’t have to spend so much on your monthly energy bills.

7. Google Chromecast Ultra

Whether you love movies, television shows, music, etc., you can stream it all using Google Chromecast Ultra. Stream all of the entertainment you love in up to 4K UHD and HDR, for just $69 monthly.

8. Canary

This home security system will automatically contact emergency services when they are needed. This system offers both video and audio surveillance, so there will be evidence if there are any break-ins on your property. You can also use it to check up on what’s happening at home when you are not there, including to make sure the kids are doing their homework.

Featured photo credit: Karolina via kaboompics.com

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