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Fiction is good for you!

In the spring of 2012 a study by two Canadian psychologists demonstrated how reading fiction can help sharpen interpersonal skills. I blogged about this study that April--it seemed like the perfect justification for getting lost in a good book! So when I heard about another study released last week that also covered the existence of the fiction/empathy connection, I shrugged it off as "Old News."

When I did look into it I found, via Scientific American, that this latest research defines the relative benefits of reading different kinds of fiction. The study, published online by Science on October 3rd, is the work of two social psychologists, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from The New School in New York City. They were interested in discovering the mechanisms that foster development of empathy. "Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults." To address this research gap Kidd and Castano ran several studies. Their results show "that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art." (Italics mine).

Value of the "beach read"?
While reading the latest Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy may help you navigate the social complexities of life slightly more than reading non-fiction (or not reading at all), those benefits are small compared to ones gained by reading truly literary work. Why might that be? Since I prefer literary fiction to scientific papers, I have not read the entire study myself. But Scientific American reporter did read it, and says the study offers this explanation: Popular fiction is more formulaic, more plot-focused than character-focused, and "the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. . . . Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. . . the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes."

Using this insight

As an actor, I know that it is the unexpected things characters do that are key to what is really going on in their inner lives. As an acting teacher, I have to remind my students to be on the lookout for these hidden hints, to see them as clues to telling personality traits, and not be in such a hurry to put every character in a neat little box.

And as a communications consultant who works with clients on issues of leadership, I know the value of empathy. Of thinking beyond yourself. Of not limiting options by your own failure of imagination. Getting outside of yourself and taking a mental vacation by reading a book has intrinsic value. But when it can teach you to accept the flaws of others and to navigate the tensions inherent in everyday living, you have tools that enable you to connect more fully. Some of my clients can do that more easily than others. I wonder what's on their shelves?

Reader Comments (1)

I know! I am so glad Alice Munro won. I hope this means more people will "discover" and read her.

October 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterAnn Timmons

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