Interesting study released this week in Science about the effect of reading fiction on our capacity to interact empathically with others. The study shows that even brief readings of excerpts from literary works of high quality can have a positive effect. The study found that not all fiction works equally well. Popular fiction, with more simplistic and one-sided characters and a heavy emphasis on plot doesn’t stimulate emotional intelligence in the same was as “literary fiction”. According to the NY Times review of the article: “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Good fiction leaves gaps for readers to fill in, something reader response literary criticism in the 1980’s and 90’s explored in depth. We tend to think of reading as an isolating experience but the study points to the social benefits that reading fiction can provide. The NY Times comments: “The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction.” Maybe our kids need to read fewer biographies and more Jane Austen.
The article for me also calls to mind the nice TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story, in which she warns against using simplistic narratives as a basis for understanding other people and other cultures. Rich stories and multiple narratives open up new perspectives. Stereotyping stories close minds.