What would life be like if you lacked a Theory of Mind (ToM) ? For one thing, it would be a lot more serious. Take this scene from a British sitcom about an elderly lady who overhears her family discussing an ailing dog—the humor in it relies entirely on the audience’s ability to infer that the woman mistakenly believes they’re talking about her, and to understand how this would make her feel. Human beings aren’t the only species to possess at least some form of ToM , which some psychologists refer to as “mind-reading”—but we may the only one that can learn to enhance it.
A new Science study suggests that reading literature—at least a certain kind—may strengthen the skills that underlie ToM. In the study, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano—social science researchers at New York City’s New School—conducted a series of experiments using the same basic format. In each, volunteers were randomly assigned either to a group that read a short excerpt the researchers considered emblematic of “literary fiction,” or to a comparison group. For example, participants in the fiction group might read a passage from the Chekhov short story Chameleon, about a hypocritical police inspector whose ideas about justice change and change again, depending on the mood of the crowd surrounding him. At the same time, readers in the comparison group might be given a passage from a fact-based article—something like a Smithsonian magazine piece entitled "How the Potato Changed the World”—a passage from what the researchers considered “popular fiction”—something like a best-selling Danielle Steele novel—or nothing at all.
Next, the groups were tested on both cognitive ToM (the ability to infer others’ beliefs and intentions) and affective ToM (the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions). In the cognitive test, they were asked to predict where a character would look for a violin that they had placed in a particular box, given that a second party had either moved the violin to a different box, or moved the box itself, without telling them. In the affective test, volunteers were assessed on how well they could identify specific emotional states from facial expressions, using photographs that revealed only people’s eyes.
According to Kidd and Castano, those who read literary fiction excerpts had statistically significantly higher scores than comparison groups in tests of affective ToM in all five experiments; they scored higher in test of cognitive ToM in two experiments.
These results, along with those of a similar study by a pair of Dutch social scientists that found a slightly more long-term effect on ToM, have been widely reported. Often, they’re presented with the message that reading serious literary fiction makes people more empathetic, and by extension, better human beings. But the studies have also been criticized for treating literature as a kind of medicine for the modern age, and for cherry-picking excerpts designed to bolster a particular hypothesis. No nonfiction pieces with human subjects were allowed in the New School study, for example, and the Dutch study ensured their nonfiction passages did not have a narrative structure. (We at Being Human certainly think reading nonfiction has the capacity to increase our understanding of each others’ emotional lives; we publish nothing but.)
Still, it makes intuitive sense that reading texts—whatever their genre—that unpack the feelings, motivations, and inner landscapes of characters—whether they’re human or not—could potentially help us to do the same thing in real life. And since so much of human culture, including its sense of humor, relies on our ability to read each others’ minds, I for one won’t complain if you use this study to justify buying me a book this Christmas.
photo by paulbence