Look into Pip’s eyes. What do you see?

9 Oct

“The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”

So it looks like us book nerds have yet another reason to feel superior to the rest of humanity: reading ‘literary’ fiction (as opposed to genre fiction, pulp or non-fiction) expands your ability to identify emotions in others – a measure of empathy. This study from the New School for Social Research found evidence that shortly after a dose of Chekhov, people scored better on a range tests of the Theory of Mind. (Side note: The Guardian’s statement that the effect was ‘proved‘ makes my skin creep – I can hear my old UNSW psych lecturers screeching, all the way from Canberra.)

I love this finding, partly because it vindicates my heated defence of studying literature at uni (I knew a lot of engineers and had more than one argument about the value of fiction).

But as a big fan of satire and dystopia, I wonder how broad their selections were when testing the effect. Were they looking at ‘literary’ fiction or realist fiction? Do you get the effect after reading Tom Jones? What about A Clockwork Orange? or Tristram Shandy? How much does allegory, for example, or sheer structural weirdness, affect the way you interact with characters?

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