December 22nd, 2014
Madame Bovary was a keen reader, but she empathised so deep with the characters of the books that she lost her sense of reality and ended up with a profound dissatisfaction. However, what a recent study shows is that she could have actually become a good psychologist.
Kidd and Castano (2013) have identified a relation between reading literary fiction and the ability to identify and understand other’s subjective states, also known as Theory of Mind. The researchers included people of different age, sex, ethnicity and education in their study and asked them to read either excerpts from non- fiction texts (such as manuals and essays), literary fiction manuscripts, popular fiction bestsellers, or not to read anything at all. Then they evaluated the participants’ Theory of Mind abilities with various methods.
The results showed that the participants that read the literary fiction pieces performed better during the Theory of Mind assessment than the people reading the remaining extracts, independent of any social conditions.
While the differences in performance between literary fiction readers and non- readers or non- fiction readers seem to make sense, the distinction between literature and popular fiction may look less obvious at first glance.
The explanation, however , is quite simple: as opposed to popular fiction, where the characters are generally flat, static and therefore easy to assess and predict; the individuals represented in literary fiction are round and dynamic characters, whose inner reflections are difficult to infer. It follows that while popular fiction characters are usually stereotyped, the literary fiction ones are more likely to represent real streams of consciousness.
“The good writers touch life often”, Ray Bradbury wrote in 1953 in his masterpiece Fahreneit 451. This similarity of literary fiction to the real world enables the reader to engage in mental processes and gain access to someone else’s feelings and thoughts in the safe and convention- free environment of a book.
What we can conclude is that reading a good piece of literature develops and enriches our empathy and social capacity towards others. Further, it prevents us from antisocial behaviour. Therefore, these features confer to literature a high social value: the irrational behaviours that surround us may be better understood, justified or be forgiven in such perspective. “And one day he would look back upon the fool and know the fool” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).
Photo: Rachel Sian
Kidd DC, & Castano E (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science (New York, N.Y.), 342 (6156), 377-80 PMID: 24091705
literature, fiction, non-fiction, read, reading, books, empathy, emotion, theory of mind, understand, others, bovary