16 Jul 2014

Reading Good Literature Makes You A Better Person

Theory of Mind (or ToM) is a basic principle of the human mind. It requires an ability to feel empathy, which is believed to have kickstarted the evolutionary development of the human intellect. In this light, good literary fiction can greatly enhance ToM as it serves as some kind of a training device where people can perfect their empathetic skills. According to the research, carried out by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano from the New School for Social Research in New York (now known as simply the New School), reading challenging, high-quality fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes that are fundamental to complex social relationships, i.e. the functional societies.

The main hypothesis that Kidd and Castano based their experiments on was that characters in high-quality literature are of a very complex and diverse nature - it is, therefore, not easy to decipher their motifs, understand what stands behind their choices, feelings, actions, etc. In order to do it, the reader needs to apply certain psychological skills that would allow to get into that character's shoes. Meanwhile, the schematic nature of characters from second-rate literature does not offer this possibility. Therefore, reading good books develops the important skill of empathy, which is that that cultivates humanity and brings us to a higher level of evolution (not labour, as we all thought - sorry, Engels).

In order to prove this hypothesis, Kidd and Castano performed five tests to measure the effect of reading literature fiction on participants' ToM. 

Initially, the participants had to undergo Author Recognition Test that allowed to evaluate their level of erudition regarding literature. Then every participant received one of six texts chosen for the experiment. Three of those were high-quality literary texts (excerpts from prize-winning books or celebrated stories of world-renown authors (e.g., A Chameleon by Checkov)), while the rest were those of non-fiction, sci-fi, second-rate romance novels, etc. Then, after participants completed the reading part, their ToM capabilities were tested, using several well-established measures. One of those measures, for example, was the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test, which asked participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor. Across experiements, it was found that participats who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on all of the five ToM tests.

The tests' results on understanding others' mentals states after reading different texts. Literary ficion = hight-quality literature, popular fiction = bestsellers, no reading = no texts (participants from control group). RMET - Reading the Mind in the Eyes, DANVA - Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (identified emotions from photographs). 
The results indicated that high-quality literature was favoured less than excerpts from popular fiction. Nevertheless, at the same time participants recognized it as more 'artistic' and generally better in literary light. Also, it appeared that participants had a higher level of emotional involvement when reading high-quality texts. Most importantly, however, the study showed that not just any fiction was effective in fostering ToM, rather the literary quality was the determining factor. 

Such research suggests that the reason for literary fiction's impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. "Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers and romances. Through the use of [...] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers," wrote Kidd and Castano. "Just as in real life, the worlds life literary fiction are replete with complicated indiviaduals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration."

Reading good literature develops the ability to understand, empathize and better co-exist in functional community, and therefore makes you a better person. Not a bad thing.

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