Whether you’re interacting with a co-worker, a partner, or someone you’ve just met, you’re always trying to figure out how the other person is feeling. Typically, you’ll rely on the person’s body language, tone of voice, and what he or she is saying to make a determination.
Emanuele Castano, faculty member in Psychology at The New School for Social Research, calls this process the “Theory of Mind,” or the ability to infer and represent other people’s mental states, emotions, thoughts, intentions, and desires. It is a process that is fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies.
However, is it possible to rely on more than intuition to read other people? It turns out, according to research by Castano, that reading—yes, books—can actually help you read other people. But not just any text will do: consuming literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, can help you be more empathetic and perceive how someone is feeling.
This groundbreaking research recently won Castano and his team a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“This grant from the NEA will allow my lab to continue a line of research I initiated with my former PhD student, and now Whiting Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow David Kidd, showing that exposure to literary, but not popular fiction, fosters our capacity to attend to the inner life of other people—to better infer their mental state,” Castano says. “Building on these findings, we are now planning a series of empirical studies to further understand these effects, and the mechanism through which they come about.”
Through their research, Castano and his team have determined that “literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” according to a story in The New York Times.
In addition to Castano and Kidd, the team working on this project comprises Martino Ongis, PhD candidate in Psychology, who will focus on linguistic analyses of the texts used in the studies, and Catherine Richardson, MA Psychology candidate, who will look primarily at the effects of another cultural artifact—movies.
“Similarly to literary fiction, we argue that art movies deconstruct and challenges existing social categories, and force the viewer into a more individuated perception of others,” Castano says.
Castano’s and his team were awarded the grant in NEA’s The Art Works category, which “supports the creation of work and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields,” according to the NEA.
“The arts are all around us, enhancing our lives in ways both subtle and obvious, expected and unexpected,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Supporting projects like the one from The New School offers more opportunities to engage in the arts every day.”
To join the Twitter conversation about this announcement, use #NEASpring16. For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov.