A great article today online in the NYT Mind blog on the impact of reading literary fiction.
Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.
A striking new study found that reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.
The methodology was to ask readers to asses the emotional state of people in photos.
Dr. Wendland said that “reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position.”
“Lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction, it makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives,” he said. “Popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.”
David Kidd, one of the authors of the study, said that “in popular fiction, really the author is in control and the reader has a more passive role.”
I would like to think that people involved in complex emotional situations in which they have lost the ability to empathize might be helped by reading appropriate literary fiction. It would however, have to be carefully chosen so as not be lilt in one direction or the other. Maybe people in divorces should not read about divorces, or indeed about romances.
Similarly, maybe judges would get better at appreciating complexity of emotions if they read. Indeed, the desensitizing/exhauston of judges that some research is reporting might be countered by a “Chekhov break” more efficiency than by a “chai break.”
It would be fascinating to do some research into this.