As a child, I spent much of my time hiding behind a book until one day my parents, increasingly despondent at my penchant for introversion, informed me that I was to go out and play with the neighbourhood kids. As I warily left the comfort of my home, I was faced with the initiation rites of a playground governed by social hierarchies as old as time itself. Soon enough, the picking began. I did my best to ignore it, until finally, as the mythical story goes – told by my parents, since the details get hazy around this part – I clutched onto an adjacent railing and performed something akin to a helicopter kick, no doubt inspired by my ballet classes, taking down all of the boys who were pestering me. This violent pirouette horrified my mother, who wondered what evil spirit had possessed her dainty daughter, while my father punched the air with glee, and with a satisfied look proclaimed: “Okay, she can fight for herself. She can read if she wants to now.” Henceforth, I was allowed to resume my hermit ways in peace, left to my solitude, introspection and most importantly, my books. Although reading may seem to many outside observers (including my parents at the time) to be an anti-social docile activity, I would argue that reading helps us gain insight into human nature, exposing us to situations and worlds vastly different from ours, ultimately helping us become more compassionate members of society.
In a culture of superficiality and expedience, books offer respite, depth, meaning and warmth. They offer room for reflection, growth and the most precious gift they have given me: empathy. Studies have shown that reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is defined as the ability to identify with certain beliefs, values and desires, while understanding that other individuals may subscribe to a different set of such mental and emotional states. It is, in a way, the closest scientific qualification of the very human condition of empathy. Ergo, ToM regulates the ability to understand differing intentions and attitudes, and to predict or respond appropriately to these social signals. To assess the effect of reading on ToM, researchers asked participants to read passages of award-winning literary fiction that reflect on the human condition, quick-paced plot-driven Amazon bestseller popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing at all and then used well-established measures of ToM like the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test and false-belief paradigms. The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test requires participants to indicate the emotion displayed in a black and white photograph of only a person’s eyes. In this test, individuals asked to read literary fiction performed better than the other groups. Another classic ToM experiment, which tests false-belief, can be described as follows: Jane puts her book on the table and then leaves the room. John comes in and moves the book to the closet. Jane comes back in the room to look for her book. ToM is evaluated by the ability to predict where Jane thinks the book is (on the table) and to attribute this false-belief correctly – Jane thinking the book is on the table, when you know the book is, in reality, in the closet. These tasks get more complex, especially through the introduction of second-order false-belief tasks.
In the study, participants assigned to reading literary fiction performed better at false-belief tasks than non-readers. Interestingly, the literary fiction group not only outperformed non-readers, but also outperformed the groups assigned to read popular fiction or nonfiction. This is likely due to the fact that good literary fiction is demanding of its readers. Filled with complex, nuanced situations and characters, it requires a constant evaluation of the information presented in the book. Popular fiction, however, allows for a much more passive reading experience, with pages often replete with one-dimensional and predictable characters or situations. So, while the authors of the study may applaud the devoted consumption of Fifty Shades of Grey and the like, the chances are that such opus would not, sadly, foster ToM as well as Madame Bovary.
Some time ago, when my personal and academic life were colluding on how to best time their combustion so as to yield the highest billowing clouds of smoke possible, my lab-mates noticed that I was going through novels at an unprecedented rate. While I expertly handwaved away this observation, the truth is I was holding on to those pages for dear life. And for good reason too – reading is a tried and true way to reduce stress. Researchers from the University of Sussex increased the stress levels of participants through exercise and then asked them to listen to music, drink a cup of tea, or read a book to relax. Stress levels were then reassessed using physiological metrics like heart rate and muscle tension. The subjects who relaxed by reading showed the biggest decrease in stress levels, about 68%. This may be due to the intellectual commitment that reading involves, forcing you to prioritize the words on the page over your stresses or may be due to the escapism it provides by allowing you to immerse yourself in someone else’s story and identify with them. Perhaps as a department full of type A, high-stress, overcaffeinated, neurotic individuals, we should invest in a dedicated fiction library on the 7th floor of the Medical Sciences Building. Or even better – Immunology Book Club, anyone?
Data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Research Center show that the percentage of Americans who read at least one work of literature in the previous year is at a three-decade low, while the percentage of non-readers increased from 8% in 1978 to 23% in 2014. As the list of distractions taking the form of smartphones, video games, YouTube, and a plethora of TV shows that all seem to converge on the premise of cutting up dead bodies and poking at their organs to solve crimes, only grows, I’m afraid that we are missing out on a deeply rewarding human activity. Today’s expectations of always needing to be “on” and the instant gratification of social media can sometimes overpower the very real need to retreat into a book. But considering the slew of recent data showing that voracious reading habits enhance critical thinking, imagination, knowledge and even our ability to connect with people, this decline in reading may have a much more lasting and significant effect on societal evolution than previously thought. I would be remiss if I wrote an entire article arguing for the benefit and importance of reading without quoting a line from one of my favourite books, which encapsulates this entire argument more articulately than I ever could:
“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”
I hope that everything I have told you until now about the importance of reading does not strike you as over-romanticized frivolity and that you may begin to view books not just as a source of entertainment but as an opportunity to connect better with those around us, to explore the power of perspective, to challenge our thinking and to grow. However, if you still remain skeptical of this commentary on the value of reading, then perhaps, that just means that you haven’t met the right book yet. Next on my list, is some Junot Díaz – care to join me?
- David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science 342 (6156), 377 – 380 (2013).
- David Lewis. Galaxy Stress Research, Mindlab International, Sussex University, UK (2009).
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