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Reading Fiction Enhances "Mind-Reading" Skills

Update Date: Oct 03, 2013 02:52 PM EDT

Reading fiction may improve "mind-reading" skills, a new study suggests.

A new study published in the journal Science reveals that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and though processes important to complex social relationships.

Scientists conducted five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on participants' Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is a complex social skill that helps people understand others' mental states.

The texts used in the study were defined as three types of writing: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction.

Participants read texts from one of the three genres. Afterwards, participants were tested on their ToM capabilities using several well-established measures. One of these tests is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" measure, which asks participants to examine lack-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor. Another measure is called the Yoni test, which includes both affective trials and cognitive ones.

"We used several measures of ToM to make sure the effects were not specific to one type of measure, thus accumulating converging evidence for our hypothesis, " researchers wrote in the study.

The findings revealed that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM tests than participants assigned to the other experimental groups. Researchers said this was true across all five experiments.

"Experiment One showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments Two through Five showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction," researchers wrote.

Researchers explain that literary fiction may improve ToM because unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers.

"Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of [...] stylistic devices, literary fiction de-familiarizes its readers," researchers explained. "Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration."

"We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes," they concluded.

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