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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 February 17, 2020

5 Reasons Why You Should Always Be Who You Are

5 Reasons Why You Should Always Be Who You Are

When it comes to being yourself, there can be a lot of pressure from the outside world as it tries to influence who you are. Living in a society that is constantly developing, it’s important for you to always be yourself from the inside out.

When you deeply know yourself and the boundaries that you have set, you are more likely to experience a fulfilling and rewarding life. Without knowing yourself and establishing those boundaries, you can easily be pushed around and end up on a dirt path.

So how to be who you are and always be yourself?

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” – Matthew 7:13-14

You have the option of taking the path that is broad or taking the path that is narrow. You can either conform to what life wants you to be, or have the courage to remain true to yourself throughout the years. It’s definitely a challenge to have a strong sense of self when we are constantly getting distracted and being influenced by the media and society’s way of life. But if you want to reach your fullest potential in life, it all starts with being yourself.

Why should you always be yourself? Because you will:

1. Live in Alignment With Your Values and Beliefs

Being yourself is all about knowing what you believe in and the values that you live by. When you are not yourself, you will take on the values and beliefs of others. This is when you start conforming to other people’s expectations and way of thinking.

When you know your values and why you do what you do, you will live according to your own values and beliefs.

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2. Establish Your Own Identity

When you are able to have a solid foundation of being you, you are establishing your own sense of identity. No matter what happens in your life, you will always know who you are.

There will be times where you may feel lost or distracted, but if you have your own identity you’ll be able to get back on the right path. Without establishing your own identity, you may easily conform and lose yourself.

3. Build Courage

It takes a great amount of courage when you decide to take the path that goes against the crowd. The reason why the majority of people take the broad path is because it’s easy.

It’s easy to just follow the crowd. It’s more of a challenge when you stay true to yourself and establish your own identity. This challenge of always being yourself takes courage and inner strength. No matter what comes your way, you’ll know how to handle it.

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4. Establish Boundaries

When you are always yourself, you know what your limits are and the boundaries that you have set for yourself. When people cross your boundaries, you will know.

But if you don’t establish boundaries, people may very well walk all over you and take advantage of you. If you are always yourself and you establish boundaries, you are more likely to be aware when people start taking advantage of you.

Create and establish your boundaries.

5. Find Focus and Direction

When you are always yourself, you are more likely to have focus and direction in your life. Imagine someone who is constantly conforming to other people’s expectations, do you think this person has focus and direction? I don’t think so.

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When you stay true to who you are, you are more likely to know the goals you want to accomplish and how to go about accomplishing them. You are able to stay focused and know which direction to take in order for you to accomplish your goals.

No matter what you experience in life, the only person that will always remain constant is you.

More Tips about Staying True to Yourself

Featured photo credit: María Victoria Heredia Reyes via unsplash.com

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