Reading fiction has been described as “telepathy.” We readers come to know a character’s deepest emotions, private desires, and even twisted rationalizations.
Now, two recent studies show that figuratively standing in the shoes of Jane Eyre, Humbert Humbert, or Sethe may not only foster our ability to understand others, but may also strengthen our own brain’s connectivity in the process.
A 2013 study in the journal Science made a splash by revealing that reading fiction (but not just any fiction—specifically literature) improves our ability to know what real-world people think, feel, intend, believe, or want.
What Is Theory of Mind?
This ability is called “theory of mind.” We are born with a fuzzy form of it, but it takes years of social practice to refine it, like sharpening a tool. We try to teach our kids theory of mind skills, saying things like, “Tommy cried when you took his dump truck; how do you think that made him feel?” This helps them understand that others have beliefs, feelings, and perspectives different from their own.
Now, it may seem that theory of mind is the same as empathy. Empathy is related to theory of mind, but those skilled in theory of mind aren’t necessarily empathetic. For example, tyrants such as psychopaths or bullies, in order to manipulate or taunt, know just how to push the buttons of their victims and therefore have polished theory of mind abilities, but they use these abilities without experiencing empathy.