A recent study found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
Did you smell it when you read this word? Did you also see in you mind’s eye the color? And if you ever traveled in Provence, did the word evoke a vision of fragrant lavender fields? If it did, your brain is performing well.
Understanding of written and spoken words is located in a specific area of the brain, called Wernicke’s area, and a related area, Broca’s area, is in charge of production of language. These are the ‘classical” areas, known since the 19th century. But what about the fragrance and visions evoked by the word “lavender”? We now know, thanks to neuroimaging, that the visual cortex and olfactory cortex are activated as well. And, a description of a soccer game activates the area in the motor cortex that represents the leg. Everything is connected, as my Yoga trainer likes to say. (As an aside, consider this. Since antiquity, even preceding biblical times, the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians had detailed recipes for the manufacture of perfumes, designed not only to seduce but also to convey a message about social status. In other words, social manipulation through activation of the olfactory cortex).
From words to novels
The richness of responses evoked by single words pales in comparison to the global effect a good novel has on the brain. On our walk this morning my wife mentioned “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky, which she is reading now. Although I read it a long time ago, the mere mention of the novel evoked a mental image of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who had committed a gruesome murder and then went through mental anguish before turning himself in and confessing his crime. I saw a gaunt, long-haired young man, wearing a Russian student cap, a long tattered coat, and smelling of onions with undertones of vodka. And, I sensed something else: I had a vague sense of unease, of emotional turmoil which faded slowly after we finished talking about the book. I recognized this feeling: I experienced it when I read the book. So what’s going on? Why did I have this visceral reaction to “Crime and Punishment”? Or a fleeting sense of rage and despair just at the mention of “Sophie’s Choice”? And why can’t I even recall the names of the characters in “Gone Girl”, a popular fiction that I enjoyed quite a bit reading? My only emotional memory of the book was a sense of frustration at the naive husband who let himself get manipulated by a preternaturally malevolent wife. No shades of grey here- all black and white, easy to digest, and unmemorable.
What does Science say?
A paper in Science, titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” caught my attention after reading a review of it in the NYT. First, what is “Theory of Mind”? Wikipedia defines it as “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. In other words, being self-aware as well as being aware of others mental states.
Back to the paper…people ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance, or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.
After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed. Is this laughter sincere, or fake? Is this man menacing, or just preoccupied? Would you trust this person with your savings?
The study found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. Is this why “The Book Thief” was so much more moving, so much more memorable, than the movie version? (which was excellent, by the way).
Pam Belluck, in her NYT article, says that “psychologists and other experts said the new study was powerful because it suggested a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got on the tests — from reading literature for only a few minutes.” The article quotes Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University’s Darwin College, who said he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable.” To which I say, Amen!