In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins playing the brilliant professor and author, C. S. Lewis, observes: “We read to know that we are not alone.” Little does he know how right he is — and now there is solid research to back him up.
Two researchers, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research (New York City) wanted to know how reading directly influenced people’s perceptions; specifically, how does reading literary fiction, popular fiction, or nonfiction change a person’s level of empathy? The researchers recruited subjects (customers of Amazon.com) and had them read short sections (2-3 minutes) from well-known fiction and nonfiction works. After the participants finished their reading assignments they took a number of tests that accurately measured their to read social or emotional cues.
The researchers published the results of their study in Science in a report titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” “Theory of mind” is a psychological concept that describes a person’s ability to understand that others have different beliefs and aspirations and that these may differ from their own. The new research provides empirical evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, that focus on a subject’s thoughts and inner feelings, increases a reader’s theory of mind tasks, i.e., empathy, emotional intelligence, and social perception.
Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist at Cambridge University, praises the researchers for their findings: “It’s a really important result. That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing… and to demonstrate that [literary fiction] has different effects from the other forms of reading [ — popular fiction and nonfiction — ] is remarkable.
While popular fiction is more focused on plot and exterior reality, literary fiction is more introspective — focusing on characters and their inner thoughts and feelings. Kidd elaborates: “[The popular fiction] author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role. [In literary fiction novels] there is no single, overarching authorial voice. Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
Castano and Kidd’s study results, underscoring the value of the humanities, couldn’t come at a better time. In a report titled “The Heart of the Matter (June, 2013),” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences states: “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion, we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be – our sense of what makes America great.” The report argues that the humanities should be a foundational aspect of a college education; specifically the report notes “college and university curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal education can be grounded, and such foundations need to be offered by compelling teachers.”
And what could be more compelling than reading to understand and empathize with our fellow man? Perhaps we should add to C.S. Lewis’s observation, “And we read to become better human beings.” Class dismissed.
For further reading: sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377.abstract