Reading literary fiction helps make you a better human, and it gives you mind-reading powers too! Cool.
According to a study by professor of psychologyEmanuele Castano and his PhD candidate David Comer Kidd, reading can improve people’s ability to understand the mental states of others. This ability is referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM) and it is a complex social skill. Understanding things from another person’s perspective is very valuable in society.
Interestingly, the type of reading that you do matters. The researchers found that those who were given literary fiction did better on theory of mind tests than those who read popular fiction or non-fiction books. The researchers theorized that this could be due to the complexity of the characters in literary fiction.
“Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”
So what’s going on? Well, essentially it is believed that reading allows people to explore new situations and feelings through the characters in a book. It’s a sort of guided virtual reality experience. While seeing a world through the eyes of a character the readers are exposed to the emotions that that character feels. This passive type of role-playing can build the social skills of the reader, enabling them to identify similar emotional states in others.
But as well as recognizing mental states in others does reading help build empathy in the reader? There is evidence to suggest so but studies on adults have also shown inconsistent results. However, one study looked at books aimed at preschool children and it found that over three quarters of the stories frequently reference mental states. In 2010, psychologist Raymond Mar at York University in Canada published an interesting study. They tested parents’ knowledge of children’s authors and book titles. They then tested the children with theory of mind tests. The more familiar the parents were with children’s books, the better their children performed in the tests. They also tested how familiar the parents were with adult authors and titles. This knowledge had no bearing on their kids’ results in the tests. Testing the parents’ knowledge of children’s books was a pretty neat way to objectively identify who read to their kids the most.
“Children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old acquire a theory-of-mind, in other words, an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs and desires that may differ from their own…Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking,” Raymond Mar
Mar also found that children who watched kid’s movies also did better on theory of mind tests but the same did not hold for kids who watched TV. The researchers think that parents are more involved with watching movies with their kids and discuss the mental states of the characters. Or, perhaps kids struggle to keep up emotionally with TV shows that are constantly interrupted by adverts.
So, if you want your kids to excel socially, cut back on TV, watch movies together and read with them!