Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

One Response

  1. […] a segun­da coisa é a seguinte, PHD Kei­th Oat­ley, pro­fes­sor da Uni­ver­si­dade de Toron­to, fez uma pesquisa sobre como o habito da leit…Seja você um futuro pro­fes­sor ou um futuro tradu­tor, uma coisa é cer­ta… Fal­ta empa­tia nesse […]

Leave a Reply

Categories: Author Speaks Series, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)