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Reading Melville, Reading Minds: NSSR Study Links Literature to “Theory of Mind”


What’s she thinking? Reading a novel could help you make an educated guess.

What tools do you need to read someone’s mind? Polygraphs, crystal balls, a hypnotist’s pocket watch? A new study from New School for Social Research psychology Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano suggests that the most powerful tool might be a good novel.

Kidd and Castano’s study links reading literary fiction to Theory of Mind (ToM), the complex social skill of “mind-reading” that allows individuals to imagine the mental states of others. Kidd and Castano performed five experiments to test participants’ ToM capabilities after reading literary fiction, popular fiction, or nonfiction using several well-established measures.

But what constitutes a literary work? It’s not Nicholas Sparks – think instead Junot Diaz or Louise Erdrich. Kidd and Castano sourced their literary fiction from excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction. For control groups, they used popular fiction from bestsellers or an anthology of recent popular fiction; and non-fiction from Smithsonian Magazine.

After participants read from one of these genres, they took a ToM test. One example of such a test is the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (see above), which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor. Participants who had read literary fiction scored higher than others on these ToM tests across the five experiments.

The study is published in the October 4 issue of Science. Click here to view an abstract of the article, which has also been covered in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR.  Or, if you’d like to see literature in action, take a look at The New School’s upcoming Literary Events.

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