Reading & Reacting: For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov

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cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Linse Daugaard

By Pam Belluck @ Well Blog in The New York Times

As the Common Core ushers in a new, heightened focus on reading non-fiction, along comes another study heralding the benefits of reading literary fiction. This will no doubt warm the heart of many of my English teaching colleagues, to be sure.

The new study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” published in Science magazine, makes the case that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances results on tests measuring the ability attribute mental states to oneself and others.

It 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.

This finding gives a lot of literary lovers some science to back up the claims that reading literature might just make someone a better person. It certainly strengthens the need for students to develop the ability to make inferences.

What is new here is that this study makes a direct connection between reading literature and reading social and emotional cues. There have been studies that suggested a correlation but nothing that has come quite so close to a causal relationship.

Experts said the results implied that people could be primed for social skills like empathy, just as watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional.

“This really nails down the causal direction,” said Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study. “These people have done not one experiment but five, and they have found the same effects.”

Interestingly, the results focus particularly on literary fiction, as opposed to popular works. In fact, “this was true even though…subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much.” In deep, rich works of literature there is ambiguity that invites the reader into something more akin to a conversation, which is what makes the reading great literary works, at least in part, simultaneously rewarding and challenging. It may not always be easy, nor serve up the page-turning ecitement of the latest plot-driven best seller, but clearly literature stirs something much deeper.

What’s more, reading literature may very well have some data-driven backing for maintaining a significant place in the general educational curriculum, which no doubt calls into question some of the central claims of the Common Core.

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