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Does reading literary fiction really make us ‘smarter and nicer’?

Does reading literary fiction really make us 'smarter and nicer'?
Recently, researchers at Emory University reported that reading fiction increases connectivity in certain areas of the brain.

Does reading literary fiction make us “smarter and nicer,” as a Time magazine headline declared a few years ago?

Some research has suggested it does.  A 2006 study reported, for example, that frequent readers of fiction tend to be more empathic than people who prefer nonfiction. And a 2013 study found that reading literary fiction (as opposed to reading popular fiction or nonfiction) appears to enhance people’s ability to identify and understand the emotions of others, a skill crucial for building and maintaining social relationships.

More recently, researchers at Emory University reported that reading fiction (in this case, Pompeii by Robert Harris) increases connectivity in certain areas of the brain — particularly ones associated with language and with understanding other people’s mental states. Furthermore, these changes seem to last for several days after the reading ends.

But, as British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett points out in a recent online article for New York magazine, the results of that study and so much other research on this topic “just don’t seem to come close to supporting the grandiose claims being made.”

Jarrett dives most deeply into a study published late last month in the journal Cortex. For the study, a group of cognitive neuroscientists and literary scholars at the University of Liverpool had 24 English literature undergraduate students lie in a brain scanner while reading and reflecting on various four-line selections of prose and poetry. Some of the last lines required the reader to reappraise the selection’s meaning; others didn’t.

After the scan, the students were asked to assess how poetic each entry was and whether they had had to reassess the entry’s meaning after reading its last line.

The study found, writes Jarrett, “that the students who were more sensitive to the differences between prose and poetry and more aware of shifts in meaning tended to show a range of distinct activity patterns in their brains while they were reading, as compared to those with less literary awareness.”

But were these brain-activity differences meaningful? Did they demonstrate, as the study’s authors suggest, that people with greater literary awareness are more flexible thinkers and better able to juggle several meanings at once?

Not necessarily, says Jarrett.

“It is certainly intriguing that the students with more literary awareness showed different brain activity, but the researchers’ interpretations of those brain differences are largely speculative,” he writes. “The researchers also don’t know if their measure of literary awareness was really just a proxy for a more mundane trait, such as intelligence. And they know nothing of the students’ well-being, outlook, or coping skills in real life. Plus, remember that there actually isn’t a great deal of robust psychological evidence for the benefits of reading in the first place — it arguably makes more sense to do that research first before trying to uncover the neural basis for effects that haven’t been successfully demonstrated yet.”

“In short,” he concludes, “it would be so neat if the more literary-aware students approached life with the philosophical perspective of a poet or novelist, but for now, despite the fancy brain-scan findings, the idea remains little more than a good news story awaiting more evidence.”

Darn. I think I’ll finish “All the Light We Cannot See” this weekend anyway.

You’ll find Jarrett’s article on New York Magazine’s “Science of Us” website.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2015 - 11:33 am.

    Hate to say but…

    This study actually conflicts with the title of the article. What researchers found was that some students have a neural package that responds to certain literature in a certain way. They did not find anything that suggests that literature “created” that neural package in the first place.

  2. Submitted by Hal Davis on 09/11/2015 - 11:47 am.

    At the very least….

    Finish “All the Light We Cannot See.” A phenomenally good read.

  3. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 09/11/2015 - 11:58 am.

    Seems backward

    I’m no scientist and I am not planning to read the underlying studies, but I wonder why the research goal appears to want to prove that fiction reading builds empathy instead of just observing that empathetic people appear to be more inclined to liking fiction. On a deeper level, instead of focusing on fiction narrowly I wonder if the best inquiry is into the positive role for the contemplation of the make believe within the brain overall, which impacts and has impacted all human cultures past and present and may have served an evolutionary purpose prior to the very recent time in which engaging such worlds through printed words has become available. Consider the obvious roles of religion and myth in absorbing the same brain real estate.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2015 - 10:38 am.


      A study that would establish some kind of causal relationship with reading certain material would be a completely different study.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/12/2015 - 11:42 am.

    Not all forms of narrative–religion and myth, like advertising, for example–are subtle in their engagement with human lives. What these researchers, perhaps ineptly, seem to be trying to do is see precisely what it is in **literary** fiction that pulls the brain, pushes the brain, forces us to perceive or imagine nuances of human relationships, motivation, situations.

    It’s like the difference between what a really good actor can do with his or her face and body and voice, and the cardboard performance of the merely pretty. There’s more to it than just words.

  5. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 09/13/2015 - 12:04 pm.

    Based on a questionable premise here, maybe?

    If one can assume that the totality of knowing is in one’s Subjectivity and Objectivity… and even consider that Objectivity as possibly, the tool the mind uses here to comprehend … but whatever one reads or comprehends involves the use of both aspects of the power of thinking and absorbing… then the narrative reading of literary, also contains a bridge one could say to a form of non-fiction…and Literary if it qualifies as its core being as ‘subjective’ in its presentation, then what needs to be recognized is that Literary is not a pure form of narrative and surely it involves objectivity as its tool also…so there can be not one without the other…and when we read Literary over non-literary, do we become more ‘sensitive’ to the views of others?

    Call all word ‘messages’ whatever may be based on;do involve a lottery of perceptions since what is “literary” here cannot be considered as some pure form…but what does have its roots in non-fiction narratives recalled for inspiration?

    Just wondering…however, anybody know the ‘going rate for grants based on modicum of understanding? Yet, will go no further or I may disagree with myself which suggests I may never have the qualified expertise to write a grant…heck, I bet the gods of literary and the gods of non-fiction are chuckling over the bold certainties afforded by such a set of assumptions…

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