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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.

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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 May 15, 2019

How to Tap Into the Power of Positivity

How to Tap Into the Power of Positivity

As it appears, the human mind is not capable of not thinking, at least on the subconscious level. Our mind is always occupied by thoughts, whether we want to or not, and they influence our every action.

“Happiness cannot come from without, it comes from within.” – Helen Keller

When we are still children, our thoughts seem to be purely positive. Have you ever been around a 4-year old who doesn’t like a painting he or she drew? I haven’t. Instead, I see glee, exciting and pride in children’s eyes. But as the years go by, we clutter our mind with doubts, fears and self-deprecating thoughts.

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Just imagine then how much we limit ourselves in every aspect of our lives if we give negative thoughts too much power! We’ll never go after that job we’ve always wanted because our nay-saying thoughts make us doubt our abilities. We’ll never ask that person we like out on a date because we always think we’re not good enough.

We’ll never risk quitting our job in order to pursue the life and the work of our dreams because we can’t get over our mental barrier that insists we’re too weak, too unimportant and too dumb. We’ll never lose those pounds that risk our health because we believe we’re not capable of pushing our limits. We’ll never be able to fully see our inner potential because we simply don’t dare to question the voices in our head.

But enough is enough! It’s time to stop these limiting beliefs and come to a place of sanity, love and excitement about life, work and ourselves.

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So…how exactly are we to achieve that?

It’s not as hard as it may seem; you just have to practice, practice, practice. Here are a few ideas on how you can get started.

1. Learn to substitute every negative thought with a positive one.

Every time a negative thought crawls into your mind, replace it with a positive thought. It’s just like someone writes a phrase you don’t like on a blackboard and then you get up, erase it and write something much more to your liking.

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2. See the positive side of every situation, even when you are surrounded by pure negativity.

This one is a bit harder to put into practice, which does not mean it’s impossible.

You can find positivity in everything by mentally holding on to something positive, whether this be family, friends, your faith, nature, someone’s sparkling eyes or whatever other glimmer of beauty. If you seek it, you will find it.

3. At least once a day, take a moment and think of 5 things you are grateful for.

This will lighten your mood and give you some perspective of what is really important in life and how many blessings surround you already.

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4. Change the mental images you allow to enter your mind.

How you see yourself and your surroundings make a huge difference to your thinking. It is like watching a DVD that saddens and frustrates you, completely pulling you down. Eject that old DVD, throw it away and insert a new, better, more hopeful one instead.

So, instead of dwelling on dark, negative thoughts, consciously build and focus on positive, light and colorful images, thoughts and situations in your mind a few times a day.

If you are persistent and keep on working on yourself, your mind will automatically reject its negative thoughts and welcome the positive ones.

And remember: You are (or will become) what you think you are. This is reason enough to be proactive about whatever is going on in your head.

Featured photo credit: Kyaw Tun via unsplash.com

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