essay / research

Science confirms: reading useful

Do you like books? If so, you’ve just been validated!

That’s one conclusion journalists have drawn from a paper published  in Science this monthIn “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” social psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano describe five studies showing that reading literary fiction can improve our understanding of other people’s mental states. You can read The New York Times’ gushing report of this study here. This paper is interesting not just for its findings, but for the way those findings have been absorbed into the ongoing media fight over the humanities.

The paper began as a hunch that literary fiction, as opposed to other kinds of reading, uniquely enhances the human ability to understand the ways others think and feel. This ability is known as theory of mind. It can be tested along cognitive dimensions, meaning logically reasoning through others’ mental states. So for example, you demonstrate cognitive theory of mind when you predict that someone will act based on her own beliefs, even when those beliefs don’t make sense to you. Theory of mind can also be tested along emotional dimensions, like the ability to interpret facial expressions.

In Kidd and Castano’s experiments, participants read selections from literary fiction, popular fiction and nonfiction, and then took theory of mind tests. (A control group read nothing and just took the tests). Literary fiction consistently got participants to do better on emotional theory of mind tasks. It also primed participants to do better at some, though not all, of the cognitive tasks.

The New York Times’ raves about these experiments made me skeptical, but the details seem to check out. For one thing, Kidd and Castano checked their results against gender, education, age, general emotional state, and the time spent on each test, and found that none of those factors accounted for the better performance of the literary fiction groups.

There’s also the elephant-in-the-room question of determining what constitutes truly literary fiction. But the researchers took a practical approach: acknowledging that “literariness” is hard to define, they just used fiction nominated for prestigious awards. Such books are heavily vetted by people who set out to find the “best” in literary fiction, so even if we don’t agree on their quality, it’s a good population to use in establishing some kind of baseline norm for what counts as literature. Accordingly, popular fiction is defined as genre fiction, like best-selling romances or thrillers. The dividing lines can get blurry, and everyone might disagree as to the merits of one type of reading over another. But I’d say it’s a fair enough line for the researchers to draw.

So with all that said, these studies look like legitimate evidence that, as an Atlantic article declares, fiction can make us better people. And less obviously, I think the studies show how psychology can dialogue with scholarship in art and literature, by looking at the details of how creative works influence human behavior. Literary scholars have well-established theories on why literature matters and what makes it successful. Studies like Kidd and Castano’s can work alongside such theories to shed light on the mind and brain. For example, evidence that something unique about literary fiction primes social behaviors prompts interesting questions about how such behaviors develop in our brains and social environments.

But there’s a general way in which these studies offer nothing new: in showing that literature has value. To paraphrase many online commenters: Yes, fiction enriches our understanding of the world and can make us better people. Readers know this already. So it seems bizarre for these findings to be championed as proof that reading fiction has a purpose. That is, it seems bizarre until we take some social context into account. Then it looks like the excitement around these findings is a sign of the times.

Media hullaballoo over the “death of the humanities” in the U.S. picked up this past summer (though such freak-outs have been happening since the 1970s). Wizard statistician Nate Silver even crunched the humanities numbers in June. The conclusion seems that insofar as the American humanities have a problem, it’s more complicated than a raw decline in the number of people seeking humanities degrees. And Kidd and Castano end their paper noting that 46 U.S. states have adopted educational standards calling for secondary schools to spend less time teaching fiction. So even their article lets out a war cry for the humanities.

None of that proves that the U.S. has a humanities crisis. But it means that for a lot of people, it sure feels like there’s one. So when the Kidd and Castano paper gets reported as proof that literature has value, it doesn’t reflect that science can have the last word on that question in the first place. It just suggests that right now, the media portrayal of the humanities has got those fields on the defensive. And it’s a great example of how scientific findings filter into public knowledge in a way directly shaped by social concerns, like values in education.

In any case, I was a book lover before and after reading this study. But next time I curl up with a novel, it won’t hurt to know that I might be practicing my theory of mind.

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