Reading anything is better for you brain than nothing. Reading fiction is better than non-fiction. But a study has shown that reading something highbrow is the very best for you, and actually enhances your Theory of Mind (ToM).
Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano at The New School for Social Research did five experiments intended to measure the effects of reading literary fiction on study participant’s Theory of Mind: the skill of understanding the mental states of others. For the study, the researchers chose literary fiction represented by excerpts of writing by National Book Award Finalists and winners of the PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction. Popular fiction was chosen from among current Amazon bestsellers and an anthology of popular contemporary short fiction. Non-fiction was from Smithsonian Magazine. A press release explained their methodology:
After participants read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM capabilities using several well-established measures. One of these measures is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor. Another one is 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, " the researchers said.
Across the five experiments, Kidd and Castano found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM tests than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, who did not differ from one another.The results of the study were conclusive in showing that the literary quality was an important factor in fostering Theory of Mind regardless of content or subject matter.
Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “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,” Kidd and Castano say.