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Changing our Minds…by Reading Fiction

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

Chang­ing our Minds

By imag­in­ing many pos­si­ble worlds, argues nov­el­ist and psy­chol­o­gist Keith Oat­ley, fic­tion helps us under­stand our­selves and others.

–By Keith Oatley

For more than two thou­sand years peo­ple have insisted that read­ing fic­tion is good for bookyou. Aris­to­tle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles, and Euripi­des, which we would now call fiction—is a more seri­ous busi­ness than his­tory. His­tory, he argued, tells us only what has hap­pened, whereas fic­tion tells us what can hap­pen, which can stretch our moral imag­i­na­tions and give us insights into our­selves and other peo­ple. This is a strong argu­ment for schools to con­tinue to focus on the lit­er­ary arts, not just his­tory, sci­ence, and social studies.

But is the idea of fic­tion being good for you merely wish­ful think­ing? The mem­bers of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Dji­kic, Ray­mond Mar, and I—have been work­ing on the prob­lem. We have turned the idea into ques­tions. In what ways might read­ing fic­tion be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psy­cho­log­i­cal func­tion of art generally?

Through a series of stud­ies, we have dis­cov­ered that fic­tion at its best isn’t just enjoy­able. It mea­sur­ably enhances our abil­i­ties to empathize with other peo­ple and con­nect with some­thing larger than ourselves.

Pos­si­ble selves, pos­si­ble worlds

Peo­ple often think that a fic­tion is some­thing untrue, but this is wrong. The word derives from the Latin fin­gere, to make. As some­thing made, fic­tion is dif­fer­ent from some­thing dis­cov­ered, as in physics, or from some­thing that hap­pened, as in the news. But this does not mean it is false. Fic­tion is about pos­si­ble selves in pos­si­ble worlds.

In terms of 21st-century psy­chol­ogy, we might best see fic­tion as a kind of sim­u­la­tion: one that runs not on com­put­ers, but on minds. Such men­tal sim­u­la­tion unfolds on two levels.

The first level involves sim­u­lat­ing the minds of other peo­ple: imag­in­ing what they are think­ing and feel­ing, which devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists call “the­ory of mind.” The theory-of-mind sim­u­la­tion is like a watch, which is a small model that sim­u­lates the alter­na­tion of day and night as the earth rotates. Often we can’t see sun or stars, so we refer to a lit­tle model that we can carry with us, a wrist­watch, which, as it hap­pens, is more accu­rate than a device like a sun­dial that offers a direct read-out from the heavens.

Sim­i­larly, although some­times we know what other peo­ple are think­ing and feel­ing because they have just told us, for the most part we have to con­struct a men­tal model of the per­son to know what’s going on inside their heads. When we do this for emo­tions, the process is called empa­thy, and neuro-imaging stud­ies sug­gest that when we rec­og­nize an emo­tion in some­one else, our brains gen­er­ate the same emo­tion. In effect, we are sim­u­lat­ing the other person’s emo­tional state.

Fic­tion, as Lisa Zun­shine has empha­sized in her 2006 book, Why We Read Fic­tion, engages our theory-of-mind fac­ul­ties and gives us prac­tice in work­ing out what char­ac­ters are think­ing and feel­ing. Indeed some gen­res of fiction—for instance, the mys­tery novel—are entirely con­cerned with work­ing out what char­ac­ters are up to when they are try­ing to con­ceal it.

The sec­ond level of sim­u­la­tion is about what hap­pens when peo­ple get together. Just as com­puter sim­u­la­tions of atmos­pheric pres­sure, winds, and humid­ity are used to gen­er­ate weather fore­casts, so nov­els can be thought of as sim­u­la­tions of how peo­ple react to com­bi­na­tions of social forces. Near the begin­ning of Pride and Prej­u­dice, for exam­ple, Jane Austen describes a ball. The novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, Eliz­a­beth Ben­net, and her sis­ters are excited because they might meet poten­tial hus­bands. But one of the most eli­gi­ble men, Mr. Darcy, finds the pro­ceed­ings provin­cial, and thinks they will be tedious. Austen is run­ning a sim­u­la­tion in order to under­stand what hap­pens in social groups when expec­ta­tions clash in this kind of way. She’s offer­ing insight into people’s lives and manners—insight that’s just as rel­e­vant to our world as to Eliz­a­beth Bennet’s.

Under­stand­ing others

So if fic­tion is a kind of sim­u­la­tion of our emo­tional and social worlds, could it be that peo­ple who read a lot of fic­tion are more empathic and socially intel­li­gent than those who don’t? This is the ques­tion that Ray­mond Mar, Jacob Hirsh, Jen­nifer dela Paz, Jor­dan Peter­son, and I asked in a 2006 study.

First we mea­sured whether 94 par­tic­i­pants read pre­dom­i­nantly fic­tion or non-fiction. Then, to esti­mate their social abil­i­ties, we used two tests. One is a mea­sure of empa­thy and the­ory of mind: Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Mind in the Eyes” test. The par­tic­i­pant looks at pho­tos of people’s eyes—as if seen through a mail slot—and tries to guess the men­tal state of the pho­tographed per­son. In the sec­ond test, the Inter­per­sonal Per­cep­tion Test, par­tic­i­pants view 15 video clips of peo­ple inter­act­ing, then answer a ques­tion about each one—for instance, “Which of the two chil­dren, or both, or nei­ther, are off­spring of the two adults in the clip?”

Our results con­firmed that read­ing fic­tion is asso­ci­ated with increased social abil­ity. We found that peo­ple who read pre­dom­i­nantly fic­tion were sub­stan­tially bet­ter than those who read pre­dom­i­nantly non-fiction at the Mind in the Eyes test, and some­what bet­ter at the Inter­per­sonal Per­cep­tion Test.

But could it be that the per­son­al­ity char­ac­ter­is­tics of more socially intel­li­gent peo­ple incline them to read fiction?

To help find an answer to that ques­tion, Ray­mond Mar used a fic­tion story and a non-fiction arti­cle from The New Yorker, and ran­domly assigned peo­ple to read one or the other. Mar gave all the read­ers an ana­lyt­i­cal rea­son­ing task in a mul­ti­ple choice for­mat, derived from the LSAT exam for entrance to law school, and a social rea­son­ing test in the same for­mat with ques­tions about the emo­tions, beliefs, and inten­tions of char­ac­ters in social scenarios.

The result: The two sets of read­ers had sim­i­lar ana­lyt­i­cal rea­son­ing skills, but the short-story read­ers showed a stronger under­stand­ing of social sit­u­a­tions than the essay readers.

How do we explain these results? My col­leagues and I think it’s a mat­ter of exper­tise. Fic­tion is prin­ci­pally about the dif­fi­cul­ties of selves nav­i­gat­ing the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, what­ever it is about: self­ish genes, or how to make Mediter­ranean food, or whether cli­mate changes will harm our planet. So with fic­tion we tend to become more expert at empathiz­ing and social­iz­ing. By con­trast, read­ers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genet­ics, or cook­ery, or envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies, or what­ever they spend their time read­ing and think­ing about.

Chang­ing ourselves

So there is evi­dence that read­ing fic­tion improves our social abil­i­ties. But does it affect our emo­tions and personality?

This was the ques­tion behind a dif­fer­ent kind of study by Maja Dji­kic, Sara Zoeter­man, Jor­dan Peter­son, and myself, due to be pub­lished this year. We ran­domly assigned 166 peo­ple to read either a lit­er­ary short story or a ver­sion of the same story rewrit­ten in a non-fictional for­mat. Before and after they read the text, we mea­sured read­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties using a stan­dard per­son­al­ity test.

The lit­er­ary story was “The Lady with the Lit­tle Dog,” by Anton Chekhov, who is gen­er­ally acknowl­edged as the world’s great­est short story writer. It is about Dmitri Gomov, and a lady, Anna Ser­gueyevna, whom he sees walk­ing with her lit­tle dog. They are both alone, on vaca­tion at a sea­side resort. They are both mar­ried to other peo­ple, but they begin an affair. At the end of their vaca­tion they part. But their feel­ings for each other grow, and both are shocked to dis­cover how much more impor­tant these feel­ings are than any­thing else in their lives. They encounter many dif­fi­cul­ties, and over­come some of them. The story ends with this: “… their hard­est and most dif­fi­cult period was only just beginning.”

The ver­sion in a non-fiction for­mat was writ­ten by Dji­kic as a court­room report of divorce pro­ceed­ings. It has the same char­ac­ters and events, and some of the words, of Chekhov’s story. It is the same length and read­ing dif­fi­culty. Impor­tantly, the read­ers of the non-fictional account reported that they found it just as inter­est­ing, though not as artis­tic, as Chekhov’s story.

We found that the per­son­al­ity traits of read­ers of Chekhov’s story changed more than those of the read­ers of the court­room account. The changes in per­son­al­ity were not large, but they were mea­sur­able. They were dif­fer­ent from the changes of belief spurred by a piece of writ­ing meant to be per­sua­sive, which tend to be all in the same direc­tion as intended by the writer. Instead, Chekhov’s read­ers changed in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, with each change unique to the par­tic­u­lar reader, medi­ated by the emo­tions that each indi­vid­ual felt while reading.

Why? We believe that as peo­ple read Chekhov’s story, they expe­ri­enced empa­thy with the pro­tag­o­nists and iden­ti­fied with them so that each reader, in his or her own way, became a bit more like them, or decided not to think in the same ways as the char­ac­ters. When we read “The Lady with the Lit­tle Dog,” we can be both our­selves and Gomov or Anna. Through sto­ries, self­hood can expand.

My col­leagues and I also believe that read­ers of Chekhov’s story were taken out of their usual ways of being so that they could con­nect with some­thing larger than them­selves, beyond them­selves. This is an effect that goes beyond fic­tion. All art aspires to help us tran­scend ourselves.

Bit­ter­sweet creatures

So what is art, that it can enhance social abil­i­ties and trans­form the self? First of all, art is some­thing that lasts and can spread to oth­ers. So although one can imag­ine a lover whis­per­ing an impro­vised poem into her lover’s ear, for the most part a poem will travel in time and space, and last beyond the moment of its conception.

Sec­ond, art is some­thing made by humans that is both itself and some­thing else. Archae­ol­o­gist Steven Mithen argues that the first unequiv­o­cal works of art appeared rel­a­tively recently, between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. For instance, a wooden flute has been dis­cov­ered from 43,000 years ago, and the ear­li­est cave paint­ings, at Chau­vet in France, are from 31,000 years ago. In this same period, orna­ments such as bracelets started to appear, as did sites of human bur­ial. In all these cases, the thing pro­duced was both itself and some­thing else. A piece of wood was also a flute capa­ble of sound­ing notes. Char­coal on a cave wall was also a rhi­noc­eros. A piece of bronze was also an adorn­ment. A bur­ial site was some­thing con­structed to show that some­one was dead and also alive on some other plane.

Mithen pro­poses that until this period, our pre­his­toric ances­tors were knowl­edge­able, but their knowl­edge was con­fined within domains. One domain was inter­ac­tions in the social group, another was, say, the prop­er­ties of plant foods, and so on. But at some point in the evo­lu­tion of the human brain, 30,000–50,000 years ago, the domains of our cog­ni­tive struc­tures started to inter­pen­e­trate, and metaphor was born: marks on the wall of a cave could become a rhinoceros.

This later allowed the ancient Greek lyric poet Sap­pho to write, “Love shakes me again, that bit­ter­sweet crea­ture.” Love is itself, and also some­thing else. The domains of emo­tion and taste inter­pen­e­trate through Sappho’s poem, in a phrase that was so mem­o­rable that the idea of love being bit­ter­sweet has lasted 2,600 years. Such cross­ings of domain bound­aries still sur­prise us. It is that sur­prise which can help expand our under­stand­ing of our­selves and the social world.

Keith OatleyKeith Oat­ley, Ph.D., is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto. He is the author of six books of psy­chol­ogy and two nov­els, the first of which, The Case of Emily V., won the 1994 Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize for Best First Novel. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berkeley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

Related arti­cles by Greater Good Magazine:

- Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cog­ni­tive Development

- Cog­ni­tive and Emo­tional Devel­op­ment Through Play

- Mind­ful­ness and Med­i­ta­tion in Schools for Stress Management

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