How Literature Changes Your Brain for the Better


Reading fiction has been described as “telepathy.”  We readers come to know a character’s deepest emotions, private desires, and even twisted rationalizations.

Now, two recent studies show that figuratively standing in the shoes of Jane Eyre, Humbert Humbert, or Sethe may not only foster our ability to understand others, but may also strengthen our own brain’s connectivity in the process.

A 2013 study in the journal Science made a splash by revealing that reading fiction (but not just any fiction—specifically literature) improves our ability to know what real-world people think, feel, intend, believe, or want.

What Is Theory of Mind?

This ability is called “theory of mind.” We are born with a fuzzy form of it, but it takes years of social practice to refine it, like sharpening a tool.  We try to teach our kids theory of mind skills, saying things like, “Tommy cried when you took his dump truck; how do you think that made him feel?”  This helps them understand that others have beliefs, feelings, and perspectives different from their own.

Now, it may seem that theory of mind is the same as empathy.  Empathy is related to theory of mind, but those skilled in theory of mind aren’t necessarily empathetic. For example, tyrants such as psychopaths or bullies, in order to manipulate or taunt, know just how to push the buttons of their victims and therefore have polished theory of mind abilities, but they use these abilities without experiencing empathy.

Honing theory of mind ability over a lifetime allows us to navigate a complex social world, predict what other people want, know when to shut up and when to plow onward, tactfully handle delicate situations, or discreetly wiggle out of a mess.  Sometimes, judging someone’s reaction even allows us to learn about ourselves, such as “People seem to be avoiding me today; I must be coming off as even more irritable than I feel.”

How They Conducted the Fiction Study

In the experiments in Science, the researchers assigned participants to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction, or nothing at all.  Literary fiction included, among others, finalists for the National Book Award and a short story by Chekhov.  Popular fiction included the current top three selling authors on Amazon including Danielle Steele and Wm. Paul Young.  After the research participants read, they took a number of tests that measured empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.  Those who had read literary fiction did measurably better on the tests than those who read the other forms of writing.

What’s So Great About Literary Fiction?

But why did it only work with literary fiction, not popular fiction or non-fiction?  Here are some ideas. Popular genre fiction, such as romances and sci-fi, often have characters who are archetypal and therefore predictable: the hero, the bully, the rebel, the dreamer, the out-of-reach love interest, the self-made man, the girl next door.  They are in line with reader’s expectations and don’t require a deep look—they don’t require theory of mind—to be understood.

Literature, however, engages the reader with complex characters who aren’t as stereotypical. So instead of relying on archetypes, characters’ mindsets have to be gleaned from spare but meaningful details, like inferring a hardscrabble childhood from how quickly a character wolfs down a meal, or deducing trouble in a relationship from a character’s glance away from her fiancé.

Next, in literary fiction, multiple characters often experience the same event, which requires us readers to hold many perspectives in mind, each different from our own.

Finally, literary fiction more frequently uses stylistic devices such as metaphor, imagery, and symbolism, which give us clues about a character but allow us, the readers, to fill in the blanks.  All in all, readers have to interpret, infer, and fill in the gaps—all markers of well-practiced theory of mind abilities.

And although developing theory of mind skills is a lifelong undertaking, it seems our abilities can be activated with a just few pages of Chekhov.  So add some of the classics or award-winners to your reading list.  Not only will you engage with some fascinating characters, but your social skills will also thank you for it.



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