English teachers have long claimed reading books makes you a better person, maybe because their livelihoods have long depended on it. Now they've got proof, courtesy of the science wing.
But not just any books. Like the National Endowment for the Arts' recent survey, this study distinguishes, somewhat snobbishly, between literary fiction and—ahem—popular fiction. In other words, between what you read in college (DeLillo, Woolf, all the rest) and what you read in the waiting room (E. L. James and such). It's reading the former category, even for as little time as a few minutes, that makes you do better on psychology tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
Put much more succinctly, reading good fiction makes you a better person than reading trashy books.
Here's how it works. The study, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," was carried out at New York's New School for Social Research, where researchers paid participants to read excerpts for only a few minutes before taking computerized empathy tests, reports The New York Times. Some read literary fiction. Some read bestsellers (selections by Rosamunde Pilcher, Robert Heinlein, and Gillian Flynn). Some read nonfiction, taken from Smithsonian Magazine. Some read nothing. This was accompanied by four other experiments.
According to the study, the results clearly show that "reading literary fiction temporarily enhances [Theory of Mind]. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art." That's a big deal, in no small part because of the remarkably small amount of time participants spent with these reading samples. And the explanation for it, if the researchers are correct, has much to do with what good writers say—and what they leave unsaid:
Our contention is that literary fiction, which we consider to be both writerly and polyphonic, uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences. [ . . . ] 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. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers' expectations and so not promote ToM.
In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.
Unfortunately, it might also be making you more of a snob. At press time, researchers have not quite indicated where literary elitism falls on the emotional intelligence spectrum.