The New School recently published a study in Science, an academic journal, which found that reading literary fiction improved the emotional intelligence and higher functioning skills of study participants. PhD candidate David Comer Kidd and his adviser Dr. Castano conducted two experiments to inform their October 3rd paper, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," hoping to clarify the dividing lines between "literary fiction," "popular fiction," and "non-fiction."
While their non-fiction pieces came from Smithsonian Magazine, literary fiction excerpts came from books which had won the National Book Award finalists and winners of the 2012 Pen/O. Henry Award for fiction. Popular writing segments simply came from Amazon.com's top ten list, which currently includes books by conservative talking heads Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, as well as fiction by Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks.
Participants, having read their assigned segments of writing, were asked to study only the eyes of black and white film actors. They attempted to describe the emotions these actors were conveying in their films, without knowing the context of the shot, or even the actor pictured. Participants who had read literary fiction which had won prestigious awards were far more likely to identify the intended emotion, especially complex emotions like jealousy, nostalgia and regret.
What is it about literary fiction that makes us more in tune with complex emotions and expression? “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “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.”
What's disturbing, of course, is that less than half of US adults currently read for pleasure, and those that do tend to stick to popular novels like paperbacks and harlequin romances. Although there's nothing inherently harmful about these genre-specific works, Dr. Castano and Mr. Kidd's research suggests that literary fiction is far more beneficial. It's still up in the air whether reading popular fiction is any more beneficial than the chosen "arts" hobby of 71% of U.S. adults who do regularly ingest fiction: by watching television or reading website content. Overall, Americans who read for pleasure are dropping their novels and essays increasingly, and that's to say nothing about the plummeting rates of poetry-readers (less than 6% of Americans read poetry for fun).
As the Scientific American reports, the use of literature and high-brow fiction shouldn't be compared to studies like mathematics or hard sciences, but instead given value on its own terms. Sometimes, as Jerome Kagan writes in Psychology's Ghosts, the hard sciences are not the tool needed to extract truth out of a situation. "An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning." Scientists who find this argument "wishy-washy" should ask themselves: is deeper understanding of the human condition less important or useful than what we learn from biology or chemistry? Further, is literary fiction the best way to explore and convey subjects like this? The New School would argue that it is.