Wednesdays* are for Learning: Dr. Emanuele Castano Researches Reading

February 18, 2015

Source: New York Times
*All days.

One great perk of working for a university is being exposed to new ideas and findings from the academic community just by reporting to my job every day. My department hosts weekly speakers from each "branch" of psychology, and my boss encourages me to attend any that I find interesting.

Last Monday, my research and book nerdery (nerdity? nerddom?) collided when I took an hour to go see a lecture by Dr. Emanuele Castano. A social psychologist over at The New School, he recently claimed some fame for his research showing a small but reliable bump in theory of mind assessment scores associated with reading literary fiction. Some of you might have even seen the write-up in The New York Times or the one on NPR about it.

To untangle the jargon, "theory of mind" (ToM) is basically the human ability to take others' perspectives into account and recognize that another's thoughts, feelings and desires may be different from your own. Over the course of five experiments, Castano and his colleague demonstrated that participants who read a short selection of literary fiction scored, on average, a few points better on classic ToM tasks than participants who read non-fiction, "popular" fiction, or nothing at all. (Note: I have access to scientific journals through my job, so it's possible you might not be able to open the full article. You should, at least, be able to see the abstract.)

During his talk, Castano assured his readers that, no, it isn't just Chekhov that does it, and he even expressed some regret over choosing the classic author (though it certainly makes for a snappy NYT headline). These findings held for writing by Louise Erdrich (Castano was especially gushy over The Round House),  Don DeLillo, and many others.

So what does this actually mean? It's bad practice to try to extrapolate large meanings or trends from very specific research findings, but it may be that readers of literary fiction are better empathizers. Castano suggested that it could be that literary fiction tends to leave a lot more up to the reader's imagination—the good ol' "show, don't tell"—and forces them to work harder to figure out the characters' motivations.

A shortcoming he acknowledged is that there is no precise metric for deciding what fiction is "literary" and which isn't (for these studies, he selected his literary fiction based on the choices of "experts," such as those who select winners of the National Book Award). He mentioned that he hopes to tackle this problem in future studies, the results of which my inner scientist and bookworm eagerly await.

What do you think about this research? Do you know of any other book-related findings?

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