Reading with Your Mind in Mind: The Cognitive and Social Benefits of Literary Fiction

I recently read this article and it both aggravated and encouraged me. Overall, it was a very encouraging article, touting the importance of a liberal arts education. But, several parts aggravated me, namely, the reported views of tech company founders/executives regarding the humanities—specifically, how some of these higher-ups think the humanities to be lesser disciplines than the STEM disciplines and, therefore, not worth a student’s while, such as this quoted view of Vinod Khosla: “If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies.” While I respect Khosla’s innovativeness and success, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this assertion. It is in the humanities where we are uniquely taught to think for ourselves (at least in certain ways) and to tackle unique problems. No, the humanities don’t teach all types of thinking (e.g., research via the scientific method), but how often do the sciences educate us in asking and answering important existential, ethical, or metaphysical questions? And indeed, because of these unique mindsets that are developed in the humanities, as the author goes on to say, these individuals are able to solve otherwise seemingly intractable problems…even in a STEM discipline like computer programming. That’s because the humanities and the sciences aren’t competing forces, but complementary ones. Each is uniquely important in developing our minds—and, even more, ourselves—and without one or the other, we will be missing out on some of our possibility to fully live out our potential as thinking, feeling, experiential human beings.

In particular, it is in those areas of feeling and experiencing that the advantage of the humanities is arguably the clearest. Yes, the humanities teach us to think, but the sciences also do that very well (and, in some ways and areas, even better); the difference between the two is in type, not quality or import. But when it comes to feeling and experiencing, the humanities, in their exploration of the human condition, offer what the sciences simply cannot offer as completely: humanity. Yes, there are ethical dilemmas in the sciences, along with human interest stories and real-world problems. But the times when I am most truly faced with what it is to be a human, it overwhelmingly comes from the humanities, whether philosophy or theology or history or literature. It is the latter on which I will focus.

There’s something magical about reading a good book. You get transported into a different time and place; your imagination lets loose; you see new worlds and relate to new characters, feeling what they feel and experiencing what they experience. There’s also something less magical, but no less profound, about how reading a book engages our brains. Specifically, it engages our Theory of Mind (ToM) processes. ToM is the human cognitive (and emotional) ability to reason about and understand others’ minds. By employing ToM, we are able to realize that other people have their own unique beliefs and thoughts (i.e., that are different from what we believe or think). This is first-order ToM. We are also able to go further and realize that others also have intentions. This is second-order ToM. In other words, at this stage, we are able to recognize that others have ToM, and, as such, that they can recognize that we have our own thoughts and beliefs; thus, they are able to make use of (and, in some cases, manipulate) our thoughts and beliefs in order to accomplish their goals and intentions. In theory, you could keep increasing in these orders ad infinitum, talking about thinking about what we know about what others know about what we know about what they know about…but that quickly gets complicated, and most research only looks at first- and second-order ToM, so I’ll leave it there. [And everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief, myself included, because that would be a lot to keep track of.]

Brain Reading a Book

In typically developing children, first-order ToM develops around four years of age, and second-order ToM around six or seven. Much more could be said about ToM, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If you’re interested in learning more about ToM, including the associated brain areas and potential moral implications, or if you simply want to watch adorable kids take a ToM test, check out this fantastic TED talk.

So, how does this relate to literature? Well, essentially, ToM is the process whereby we read others’ minds, whereby we get in their heads, whereby we try to experience what others are experiencing. This is what we do when we get involved in a good book and relate to the characters. Thus, it’s no surprise that reading literary fiction has been shown to enhance people’s ToM abilities. In a series of recent experiments, Kidd and Castano (2013) consistently showed that reading a selection of literary fiction, but not popular fiction, led to individuals’ subsequently being better able to empathize with others (empathy being the affective component of ToM, as opposed to the cognitive component of ToM, which is the ability to think about others’ beliefs and intentions, which is what I described earlier), as measured by their ability to identify emotional facial expressions. Similarly, they found that people who likely tend to read more literary fiction also scored higher in identifying these expressions. In two of the experiments, they even found that those who read literary fiction (but, again, not popular fiction) scored higher on a measure of cognitive ToM. Similarly, Bal and Veltkamp (2013) found that individuals who read selections of literary fiction (selections from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) saw a positive gain in empathy, but only in those who reported being most transported into the story. This pattern was not observed in those who read news articles, even though those articles were focused on people and personal experiences.

Based on these results, it can be argued that literature enhances empathy and ToM, at least when readers become involved in the story. But not all literature is created equal. What is special about literary fiction that is lacking in popular fiction and emotional news stories? Kidd and Castano address this in their discussion, noting that literary fiction is more “writerly”, whereas popular fiction is more “readerly”. What they mean by this distinction is that popular fiction is very fun, engaging, and easy to read. Good literary fiction, on the other hand, is realistically complex, capturing many of the nuances and enigmas that typify the human psyche and involving social interactions that do not abide by our expected schemas. As such, a reader of such literature must work to make sense of characters and motives by “[taking] an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states”—that is, they get very transported into and involved in the story—thereby relying on ToM (because that’s what ToM does: gives us representations of others’ internal, subjective states).

So one clear advantage of literature is that it helps us refine our abilities to understand and empathize with people. I would say that that alone is good reason to preserve and exalt the humanities. But the benefits do not stop there. Johnson (2012) found that individuals who read and were more transported into a story were more likely to subsequently engage in prosocial behavior. Granted, the story was one aimed at teaching compassion, and the prosocial behavior was highly contrived (the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a writing utensil and observed if the participant picked it up), making it challenging to extend and apply the findings to more real-world scenarios. Nevertheless, the potential is there: reading literature just might be making you a better, more helpful, more compassionate citizen. Furthermore, there is longitudinal correlational evidence that higher ToM abilities as a young child may lead to higher executive functioning abilities later (abilities like inhibiting distracting information, attending to what is important, switching between tasks or rules, etc.; McAlister & Peterson, 2013). These higher executive functioning abilities—along with higher ToM abilities when older—were also associated with greater number of siblings at an earlier age, suggesting that having close relationships at an early age might lead to greater ToM and executive functioning later in life. Thus, it seems, the more you deal with people, the better you will be at reading and relating to them.

The takeaway from all of this evidence is this: the more experience you have in relating to people, whether they be real people or literary characters (complex ones—more like people in real life), the better able you will be to read and understand to people, and, thereby, relate to them. This, then, can enhance the size of your social network and may even make you a more compassionate, helpful friend and citizen. Behold the power of a good book! The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed!

Now you might be wondering, “What about movies? Can a high-quality, psychologically and socially complex movie exert the same effects as a high-quality book?” I wondered that, too. So I looked. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any studies that examined movies in the same way others have examined books. But, my thought would be that, yes, they could be able to exert the same benefits, as long as they work like writerly literary fiction in that they draw the viewers in to the characters and invite the viewers to decipher for themselves what the characters are thinking and feeling.

That being said, a few studies have looked at the applications of using movies to teach empathy and interpersonal skills. In one study (Hojat et al., 2013), medical students watched movie clips that depicted doctor-patient relationships. Compared to subjects who viewed a documentary about the history of medical practice, individuals who viewed these movie clips had higher scores on an empathy test. As with the study on prosocial behavior, it seems that literature or movies that depict the desired outcome behavior (e.g., helping; interpersonal skills) will augment the exhibition of that behavior in individuals who read the text or watch the movie (e.g., helping via picking up a writing utensil; having more empathic interpersonal skills).

Thus, the overall pattern from these data is this: fiction, whether read or watched, can enhance target behaviors as long as it depicts those behaviors; and, overall, literature, if it is of a high literary quality, preserving the complexity of human nature and inviting the reader to participate in interpreting the characters and situations, can enhance ToM and empathy skills. And I think we can all agree that the world needs a little more empathy. But it could use more ToM, too. Castelli et al. (2014) found that older children, those who have a more developed ToM (specifically, they have second-order ToM), make decisions about what is fair based no longer on what is most beneficial to one party or the other (even though such bias can be justifiable), but rather based on what is the most equitable split for both parties. In other words, a more developed ToM leads to a more developed (i.e., fairer) sense of fairness. Consider an example: as little Jane starts to be able to think about what Johnny thinks about her motives and actions, her idea of fairness is going to shift from hyper-fairness/over-niceness (or, conversely, advantageous/opportunistic behavior) to something that is equitable, because she now knows that he is able to know what she’s thinking and will thereby be able to discern if she’s making a decision that she thinks to be fair (or not).

So, even though, in certain ways and at certain times, we spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about what others are thinking about us, when it comes to social decisions and doing what is right and/or fair, the decision will seemingly be most equitable—and, dare I say, favorable and just?—when we do put that time and effort into thinking about what others will be thinking about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It sort of comes down to the Golden Rule—or, even better, to the Platinum Rule (do unto others as they would do unto themselves), because they will know that you made a choice in acting as you did and that you considered them and their feelings and then chose to act in a way that would respect those feelings.

In conclusion, maybe, if we all tried to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—or, in cognitive terms, spend some time in someone else’s mind—the world could be a better place. If you need some practice, read a book. Heck, even if you don’t need practice, read a book. It’ll be good for you. And apparently the rest of the world, too.

Yours truly,
D. R. Meriwether
Renaissance Man

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3 thoughts on “Reading with Your Mind in Mind: The Cognitive and Social Benefits of Literary Fiction

  1. Interesting lesson here. I like how you took an old concept (Theory of Mind) and transformed it into a new topic by relating it to literature, specifically, fiction. Well written and thought provoking. I would need to read the study myself above correlating more empathy with reading fiction literature, as I have suspicions about perhaps more empathetic people tend to read literature in a more wholehearted way than people who lack empathy which could also stand to correlate such findings with fiction literature and empathy. Interesting and thought provoking.

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  2. Thank you for your comments! Unfortunately, as I recall, that study didn’t address that issue (though hopefully there’s one somewhere that does). In fact, that piece of the study was already a little questionable: their measure of how much literary fiction people tend to read was how well they identify authors (rather than, you know, asking them how often they read…). Granted, yes, people who read more fiction will almost certainly be better able to identify authors; but then there are people like me who can have a crazy memory/knowledge for trivial things, so I know names of lots of authors (and even some quotes) whose books I’ve not yet read. So, I agree with you: I would love to see if it is actually causative or if it’s a selection bias where more empathic people tend to read more literary fiction.

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