Do You Mind?

This column originally appeared in The Observer Magazine/Guardian Online

How good are you at reading other people’s minds? To find out, answer this one question: How often do you read literary fiction? (a) Never; (b) Occasionally, maybe once a year; (c) Often, I’ve usually got one on the go. Obviously defining “literary” versus “popular” fiction is not straightforward; but to give some examples, the books involved in the study in question were:

Literary fiction: The Runner by Don DeLillo, Blind Date by Lydia Davis, Chameleon by Anton Chekhov, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Corrie by Alice Munro, Leak by Sam Ruddick, Nothing Living Lives Alone by Wendell Berry, The Vandercook by Alice Mattinson and Uncle Rock by Dagoberto Gilb.

Popular fiction: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel, Cross Roads by W. Paul Young, Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein, Too Many Have Lived by Dashiell Hammett, Lalla by Rosamunde Pilcher and Jane by Mary Roberts Rinehart

anton-chekhov

If you said “(c) Often”, then you are probably particularly adept at reading others’ minds, and understanding how they are feeling. The study in question randomly assigned participants to read one of the literary or popular fiction books above, before giving them a number of tests of “theory of mind”. These included guessing the emotion being portrayed by an actor in a still photograph, and guessing which of a number of possible people or objects the central character in a visual scene is thinking about, wants, likes or dislikes. Incredibly, reading just one literary fiction book improved performance on these tests, whereas popular fiction and nonfiction (How the Potato Changed the World by Charles C. Mann, Bamboo Steps Up by Cathie Gandel and The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World by Rob Dunn) did not. The authors suggest that literary fiction offers a safe space in which to practice understanding and interpreting others’ experience, without the risk of causing offence. Indeed Steven Pinker argues that the increase in literacy has been one of the driving forces behind the decline of violence in society.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science342(6156), 377-380.

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