Kidd and Castano ran trials on how reading passages from fiction stacked up against not reading when subjects were exposed to Theory of Mind tests. They found that reading fiction temporarily enhances ToM. Here’s the kicker though, not all fiction counts. Pop fiction (I’m looking at you Twilight, Hunger Games, 50 Shades, and Harry Potter) doesn’t do the trick. It’s not deep enough to warrant introspection in the test subject. Literary fiction, described by Kidd and Castano as, “…[being] both writerly and polyphonic, uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’subjective experiences. 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” challenges the readers exposition of the story.
Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage ToM processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable (2). Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.
So, reading quality and literary fiction boosts our ToM, but only temporarily.
The results of five experiments support our hypothesis that reading literary fiction enhances ToM. Existing explanations focused on the content of fiction cannot account for these results. First, the texts we used varied widely in subject matter. Second, it is unlikely that people learned much more about others by reading any of the short texts. Third, the effects were specific to literary fiction. We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits ToM.
However, we know from research on practice, specifically deliberate practice, that temporal changes can become stable with enough exposure. To this end, I’ve worked some of the classics into my reading rotation. These are the books everyone read in high school but has either forgotten or never understood and the books we were supposed to read but never did. I started with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and have moved on to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
(1) Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano. “Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind.” Science 342.6156 (2013): 377-380.
(2) Gerrig, Richard J., and David N. Rapp. “Psychological processes underlying literary impact.” Poetics Today 25.2 (2004): 265-281.