“Like Finding Out That Ice Cream Is Healthy”

For those who’ve been following the debate (here, here, and here) on the Brilliant Blog about how reading literature changes the mind, this article by Misty Harris of Postmedia News will be of great interest (at least, it was to me):

“Reading literary fiction—even as story only 10 pages long—can increase empathy, improve decision-making and make people more comfortable with uncertainty, suggest two new studies. In other words, the very pursuit we use to distract us from real life might actually make us better at living it.

Lead author Maja Djikic said the findings have particular implications for schools, where she notes a ‘dangerous trend” away from the arts and soft skills. This observation dovetails with a January report from Scholastic showing that reading for pleasure on a regular basis (five to seven days a week) is indeed a waning activity among youths, having fallen to 34 per cent in 2012 from 37 per cent two years earlier.

‘The prejudice of adulthood that reading fiction is inferior seems to be finding its way straight into our schools,’ said Djikic, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto. ‘You think it’s going to help students out there in real life [to emphasize quantifiable skills] when, in fact, nothing will help them more than being able to think well and understand other people.’

Her team’s first study replicated previous findings that cognitive empathy—that is, the ability to understand what another person is feeling—is higher among frequent readers of fiction. It also revealed for the first time that people who aren’t very open (that is, closed to experience and not especially curious) see significant boosts in empathy after reading a short story of approximately 6,000 words.

‘It’s precisely the people who have difficulty being open to other people’s ideas and experiences who might benefit most from reading fiction,’ said Djikic, suggesting that books act as a ‘backdoor way’ of getting closed-off individuals to empathize with others.

The second study found that reading a short story results in a reduced need for what psychologists dub ‘cognitive closure.’

‘After you read a piece of literature, it seems your discomfort with ambiguity lowers, and your need for order lowers,’ said Djikic, explaining that because the fictional chaos doesn’t directly affect us, we become more accepting of it—and that this process acts as a kind of dress-rehearsal for real life.

Both newly published studies were co-authored by the University of Toronto’s Keith Oatley and Mihnea Moldoveanu, and both draw on the same group of 100 students, whose average age was 21.7. The positive benefits of reading uncovered by the research, however, appear likely to apply to readers old and young, with Djikic noting that personal development is a lifelong process.

‘Together, these studies show the importance of literature as a developmental tool for better thinking and better empathy,’ said Djikic, adding that for lovers of literature, this is the equivalent of finding out that ice cream is healthy.” (Read more here.)

So much to appreciate here. (Especially that last line!) First, I love Djikic’s point that while many stress the value of teaching kids quantifiable skills (hello, No Child Left Behind), the fact is that “nothing will help them more than being able to think well and understand other people.”

Second, I find really appealing the idea that reading fiction is a “backdoor way” of practicing your people skills. This is a theme of Keith Oatley’s work—he has called fiction “the mind’s flight simulator.”

And third, I adore the idea that literature lowers our discomfort with ambiguity and our need for order and closure. This reminds me of what a reader wrote to me earlier on this subject—that great literature doesn’t force us to to choose sides.

Good training for life, indeed. 

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