We are what we read (or rather – a defense of fiction)

LadyReadingFiction_As we rolled out the all-new version of the Kwench Library in the Kwench Employee Engagement Platform over the weekend, I got thinking about the reading preferences of people. On kwench we have over 300k users who love to read all kinds of books. The dashboards offer an unparalleled insight into what “Corporate India” likes to read and sometimes data can prove popular perceptions wrong!

Now I am a big fan of fiction. My reading habits have been formed with spending countless hours poring over comics and then graduating to novels. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, R.K.Narayan, Conan Doyle, Ayn Rand, Agatha Christie; Alistair MacLean all had a deep influence on me at various stages of my life. By the time Dan Brown, Rowling and Tolkien got published I was an adult, but I was more than happy to read those books too.

Interestingly some of my best friends can’t stand fiction. (Sort of puts a formidable challenge to the birds-of-a-feather theory) They recoil in horror when I try to regale them with the story of the latest blockbuster I finished. These puritans wouldn’t be caught dead with a well-thumbed novel. Only hard-bound business books please! (And I cringe before hiding my favourite copy of Fountainhead in my bag.)

Ever so often I wondered why these rather imaginative and intelligent professionals didn’t feel the thrill of being transported to another world. How can following Holmes or Poirot as they go about solving a murder not be exciting? Or how can the antics of Swami and his friends not transport the reader to a small town in pre-Independence India?

Interestingly I came across an article in the Sunday Review of the NYTimes – titled “How Reading Transforms Us”. Finally some research that seemed to back up what I had felt intuitively all these years. The effect fiction has on readers is very different from that of non-fiction. I had to read more. The rest of this post is essentially a short synopsis of the research by Maja Djikic et al. of the University of Toronto.

 Fictional Stories are Simulations designed to run not on computers but on minds”

Researchers have been pondering over the difference in the impact fiction and non-fiction has on readers. Bal and Veltkamp have proposed that fiction is ‘engaging and of emotional interest’. Put in other words, fiction is capable of generating emotions whereas non-fiction due to its informational nature might be engaging but not necessarily associated with emotions.

As all those of read fiction have experienced at some time or the other, readers of well-written (i.e. engaging) fictional stories often find themselves identifying with a character in the story. The degree of this is a function of the personality of the reader. In experiments on ‘identification’, researchers Kaufman and Libby concluded that instead of considering the events of the story from a neutral point of view, readers who are high in experience-taking ‘relinquish some of their own individuality’ and align with the mindset of the character in the story. (I have had friends back in university days act like Howard Roark after reading Fountainhead)

There are three primary kinds of simulations attributed to fiction:

Simulation of complexes of several processes: Stories involving relationships and social interactions is often based on complex interactions. It is the implicit understanding of those complexes that improve the reader’s appreciation of the situation (and hence the story). These ‘fictional simulations’ enable the reader to imagine possible situations and outcomes thereby belying the popular assumption that fiction is simply a description of some sort.

Simulation of empathy: When readers interact with an engaging story, they understand or empathize with the emotions of others.

In an experiment, researchers asked readers to read a Sherlock Holmes story and the control group was given a non-fiction piece of the same length that was based on newspaper reports. Interestingly the readers who were deeply involved in the Sherlock Holmes story became more empathetic while those who were less involved actually became less empathetic. Such effects were not seen in the control group.

The theory-of-mind: Researchers have proposed that an important aspect of reading fiction is to work out what the characters are feeling or thinking.

In a very interesting experiment, Speer et. al. had people read a short story while being scanned with a fMRI (a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine. When in the story the protagonist pulled a cord to turn on the light, the part of the reader’s brain associated with grasping objects was activated.

The very interesting observation that Djikic and others present is on the Change of Cognitive Empathy among the participants who had low ‘Openness’. There was a marked change in the empathy levels of those who have low openness and read a short story instead of an essay. The study also found that people who had been reading fiction for at least five years scored higher on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.

To sum up it seems that those who read fiction are more responsive to social cues and are able to better empathize with others. Much more research needs to be done before we can start generalizing the conclusions.

But there is enough research to back up the calls for doing away with the stigma that reading fiction is merely a leisure activity. Reading fiction does contribute in cognitive development and encourages people to ‘place themselves in others shoes.’ Empathy towards others in the work place is one of the most important drivers of engagement. As the researchers point out in the conclusion of the paper – “Of course, we can understand others by interacting with them, but in real life misunderstanding often causes severe upsets. Fictional literature, in which we can misunderstand without suffering negative consequences, may be a gentler teacher.

Acknowledgements and References 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1. How Reading Transforms Us, Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic, Sunday Review, The New York Times, Dec 19, 2014. 

2. Reading Other Minds, Effects of literature on empathy, Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Mihnea C. Moldoveanu, University of Toronto