A novel idea

If I’m not in the lab, I’m always tempted to read fiction rather than scientific papers. So when I came across a study of literary fiction and social cognition, I felt doubly justified in reading it! The paper, by social psychologists Kidd and Castano, was published in Science last year (back to back with Helene’s paper on sleep), and showed that reading literary fiction may help us empathise with others. While prescribing a dose of Chekhov to boost our social skills may seem far-fetched, this study is actually a recent take on a long-standing argument: that literature and the arts have a unique moral value.

To test this idea, Kidd and Castano first defined three broad categories of text: non-fiction, popular fiction (selected from Amazon bestseller lists), and literary fiction (selected from contemporary prize-winning or classic works – think Chekhov). Their experimental subjects read short texts from one of these categories, and then completed a variety of tests commonly used to measure theory of mind – the ability to ”identify and understand others’ subjective states”. They found that participants who read the literary texts showed a small but significant increase in theory of mind compared to both popular fiction and non-fiction groups.

But why is this, and what is so special about the literary category? Kidd and Castano claim that literary fiction tends to “unsettle readers’ expectations”, compelling them to engage actively with the story. The absence of a single dominant point of view in many literary texts may also encourage readers to construct their own interpretation of characters’ actions. Of course, an ability to infer the thoughts and feelings of complex individuals – in unpredictable situations – also demonstrates theory of mind. While we still don’t understand the biological basis of this response, it might use the same neural mechanisms as our response to visual artworks, which is now being studied using brain imaging. Indeed, Kidd and Castano also suggest extending their research to other forms of art, which could lead to a more general understanding of ‘neuroaesthetics’.

However, it’s still too soon to trumpet this as proof, as the Atlantic did last year, that reading a particular kind of book makes us better people. First, there are issues with the paper’s methods. For example, participants only did the theory of mind tests after reading their texts; there was no ‘before’ condition for comparison. Also, the selection of texts in each category seems highly biased (all the non-fiction pieces were about non-human subjects!) and could easily have skewed the results.

To me, though – as a reader and a creative writer – the greatest problem is a literary one. The characteristics supposedly unique to literary fiction are present in popular genre fiction as well: complex characters and multiple viewpoints are a hallmark of much modern science fiction and fantasy, for instance. This makes the paper’s demarcation between literary and popular works seem artificial, and perhaps harmful. We could view it as a subtler version of genre snobbery, where supposedly ‘difficult’ or ‘intellectual’ works are ascribed more moral and cultural value. This is a recurring issue in literary criticism, and it would be worrying if the social sciences had fallen into the same trap.

Arguments of genre and cultural value aside, this is a fascinating study that combines approaches from literary criticism and social psychology to measure the effects of reading on social cognition. However, we should ask ourselves whether we really want literature to be valued according to a narrow definition of moral worth. Why shouldn’t we also value the pleasure and delight literature of all genres can give us? After all, moralising is one of the best ways I know to ruin a good story.

Full paper available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377.full

Further (light) reading:

The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson (for multiple viewpoints and epic narratives)
The Earthsea Quartet, by Ursula K. Le Guin (for complex, unpredictable characters)
The Steppe, by Anton Chekhov (for sheer delight)

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