Ever since I learned how to read, I have loved books. Through novels, I’ve traveled to medieval Europe, ancient Israel, Ireland in the early 1900’s, Appalachia in the 1930’s, New England in the mid-1800’s and many other times and places. Books have given me a glimpse into life on a Native American reservation, what it might mean to be a Chinese courtesan or a Japanese American during WWII, to grow up black in America 200 years ago or now, to live on a tea plantation in India or be a first-generation Indian American.
I have long believed that reading literature has given me gifts of insight and empathy. Obviously, reading about a culture is not the same as living in it, but now there’s evidence that reading literature helps people develop empathy and the skills that psychologists call “theory of mind”—the ability to intuitively understand and predict other people’s feelings, beliefs, and intentions.
In a recent article in the Star Tribune, Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and the author of “A Primate’s Memoir,” describes research about how theory of the mind develops, “Subjects who read literary fiction, which for purposes of this study meant fiction that had won or been nominated for an important literary prize, performed significantly better in all those domains—exactly the type of skills associated with theory of mind—than subjects who read other things or nothing at all.” He characterized “other things” as nonfiction magazine articles or popular fiction.
So next time someone tries to characterize my desire to read literary novels as “not really doing anything,” I can smugly (but very empathetically) think, “I’m improving my intuitive skills and exercising my abilities to understand other people’s thoughts and experiences!”