Reading, it turns out, can improve our ability to discern real-world emotion in those around us. But not just any reading will do. Airport novels or serious non-fiction don’t help, but literary fiction by the likes of Anton Chekov will hone emotion-discerning skills. Pacific Standard explains the this distinction between the genres:
Literary fiction, they note in the journal Science, “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” Unlike most popular fiction, which “tends to portray the world and its characters as internally consistent and predictable,” these works require readers to contend with complex, sometimes contradictory characters.
According to Kidd and Castano, this sort of active engagement increases our ability to understand and appreciate the similarly complicated people we come across in real life.
To arrive at these findings, the researchers recruited around 150 participants of all different ages and asked them to read either a short work by Chekov, Dan DeLillo or Lydia Davis; a non-fiction story from Smithsonian magazine about the potato famine or history of bamboo; or excerpts by popular fiction authors such as Robert Heinlein, Dashiell Hammett or Rosamunde Pilcher. Additionally, some participants didn’t read anything.
After reading for about five minutes, they looked through a series of 36 images of professional actors’ eyes and tried to pinpoint what the person in the photo was feeling. The participants who had read the literary fiction turned out to be significantly more in-tune with the actors’ emotions than those who read Smithsonian or the popular fiction works. The latter group, in fact, scored as well as people who had read nothing at all.
While popular fiction tends to be more plot driven and internally focused on a single person, The New York Times explains, literary fiction often presents a myriad of characters and leaves it up to the reader to piece together all of the disjointed takes on reality into a coherent but subjective whole – just like in real life.
More from Smithsonian.com: