Almost one-quarter of Americans didn’t read a book last year—and that’s not just an old-fashioned paper-and-ink book. According to the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of Americans didn’t read even one digital or print book or listen to a single audio book. Thirty-five years ago, that number was only eight percent.
Even for those who love literature, reading novels sometimes feels like a luxury we can’t afford or an indulgence we don’t really deserve. For those who long to read more often, there is good news. New research indicates that reading fiction actually makes us more productive and successful because it makes us more empathetic and insightful. Perhaps curling up with a good book is neither a luxury nor an indulgence, but an essential element of the good life, enabling us to serve others better and enjoy life more when we are done.
Reading and Thinking
The great promise of a liberal arts education, like the undergraduate experience at PLNU, is to increase students’ critical thinking abilities. Being able to think critically transcends nearly all career fields and equips students to be engaged citizens, informed consumers, and lifelong learners. In a world where information overload is a given and consumer marketing is ever-present, the ability to think critically is vital.
But how can students learn this important skill? And how can the rest of us maintain or improve it? Aristotle famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) claimed that poetry (that is, fiction) is better at challenging the mind than history (non-fiction). Pitting ideas against facts, Aristotle believed ideas were more important for intellectual development. Of course, a classical education has typically included both literature and history, but in an age where information and practicality reign, it is literature that some cognitive psychologists, literature professors, and others are on a mission to save. Their research aims to demonstrate the value literature can add to our lives and careers, and several PLNU faculty confirm the connections they are seeing.
A Broadened Perspective
Dr. Carol Blessing, PLNU professor of literature, can rattle off an impressive list of benefits to reading fiction.
“Literature fulfills a myriad of functions: it cultivates the imagination; sharpens aesthetic sensibilities; increases vocabulary more effectively than any other means; improves oral skills and writing; entertains; raises philosophical issues and questions of faith; connects us to the world; and teaches us to pay attention, to be more aware of ourselves and others,” she said. “Literature allows us to imagine other worlds and shows how ideas from past times have shaped our contemporary thinking.”
Blessing teaches contemporary multi-ethnic novels in her women writers course (and also teaches epics, drama, lyric verse, and tales—all genres of fiction that predate the modern literary novel). In her experience, reading works from other cultures can serve as excellent preparation for living as Christians in a diverse world.
“I have often said to students in my world literature classes that this is the first step to doing missionary work or having any relationship with people who are different from us culturally, ethnically, economically, and even religiously,” said Blessing. “This getting outside of ourselves and exploring the world of ideas and cultures is a primary tenant of a liberal arts education, and it is also Christian, as St. Paul emphasized being able to relate to different peoples in his missionary journeys. It is absolutely necessary for us to connect with the representations of other people, places, and eras that are different to develop a broader view of humanity and the ability to relate to others.”
Such a view and the relational skills that accompany it are of high value not only in our spiritual lives, but also in our career and civic lives.
“Literature helps illustrate the complexity of the world and helps us transition from black-and-white thinking to the kind of thought we need for the 21st century global society,” she said. “It teaches us to move beyond the literal; higher thinking requires the grasp of metaphor and abstraction. People who read widely, I would surmise, are less apt to jump to judgment without considering contexts and understanding the journey of the other.”
That consideration for others is especially powerful in fiction, where readers are asked to identify closely with characters often very different from themselves. Researchers have found that reading fiction increases empathy.
“Reading makes us less egotistical,” Blessing explained. “For example, I am not a Chinese-American female, but by reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, I have more of an idea about what it is like to grow up straddling two cultures. I am not a male, but by reading Hamlet and thinking about his struggles, I can understand more about the constructions of masculinity in the early modern period and the ways those ideas may still influence us in our values and views of heroes.”
Theory of Mind
The kind of empathetic thinking to which Blessing refers is known as “theory of mind” in cognitive science circles. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states, including thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, to ourselves and others.
Aside from very young children and some people with specific disorders, such as autism, we all engage in theory of mind activities. For example, a child as young as four may see someone crying and assume that person is sad. Our assumptions may become more complex as we get older—we might expect that a person who gives money to an organization believes in its cause or that a colleague who brings extravagant gifts to the boss every day is jockeying for a raise. Engaging in theory of mind activities is a frequent and essential part of our cognitive social experience as human beings.
“We live in an extremely complex social world, and the most complex things in that world are the minds of others,” explained Dr. Max Butterfield, PLNU professor of psychology. “If you think about the human social experience, it quickly becomes clear how vitally important it is to know what others are thinking and feeling, what their intentions are, and what their future behaviors might turn out to be. Predicting those things accurately is key to our survival, and so our brains devote a significant proportion of their resources to the task.”
Why are some of us better than others at “reading people”? One possible explanation comes from researchers studying the connections between literature and cognitive psychology. They suggest that reading literary fiction can make us better at understanding others’ thoughts and emotions, improving our theory of mind and making us better at reading people.
“Why?” Butterfield said. “When authors write in a way that mimics our social experience by asking us to consider circumstances through the eyes of another person, it sets those same predictive wheels in motion and engages a beautiful and complex machine designed to help us survive in a very uncertain world.”
Theory of mind isn’t always as straightforward as observing someone crying and believing that he or she is sad. With more variables and greater demands on our attention, keeping up with theory of mind can become very complicated. When authors add layers of complexity and nuance to their stories or when readers must juggle the motives of multiple characters, they are effectively undergoing an intense cognitive workout.
“Let’s say the narrator tells us that Mary wants pizza for dinner,” Butterfield said. “It’s not very hard to guess what Mary wants in that case, so readers’ brains will be much more involved if the author leaves some ambiguous question for them to ponder: Does Martha know that Mary wants pizza for dinner? To answer this question, we might have to answer any of several questions: Has Mary left any clues in previous pages in Martha’s presence as to whether she’s even hungry? Are Mary and Martha close? Would Martha even want to know or care to know what Mary wants? Is Martha socially perceptive enough to pick up on any clues that may have been left? Does Martha have anything on her mind that would have prevented her from observing Mary’s clues? Would Mary’s clues have been sufficient to suggest pizza? As you can see, adding the second layer brings complexity, and adding a third layer only adds to it: Does Peter know if Martha knows that Mary wants pizza for dinner? Now, we have to answer all those original questions about Martha and Mary, but they are complicated by many more questions about whether Peter knows any of this information, cares about any of this information, and is socially perceptive enough to understand what any of the information implies.
“Again, considering the mental states of others is a complex activity,” Butterfield continued. “Storytellers who incorporate these theories of mind entice us, or even force us, to ask and answer many complex questions. In so doing, these authors are more likely to create stories that engage us deeply, pique our curiosity, and enrich our reading experience.”
Fiction, Emotional Intelligence, and Business Success
Theory of mind is important for our social experience, as Butterfield points out. Interpreting others’ thoughts and feelings and conveying our own are important parts of our relationships. It turns out that increasing our empathy and our ability to read people is also good for our work lives, which makes sense when we consider how relational the business world really is.
Writing for Forbes.com, Erika Anderson claims in “If You Want to Succeed in Business, Read More Novels,” “…it seems that reading fiction improves your sensitivity to and appreciation of complex human situations; it provides a richer ‘toolkit’ of understanding from which to pull when making decisions and building relationships. And as our business lives get more complex, faster-paced, less hierarchical and more dependent upon our ability to build support with those around us—that kind of toolkit becomes ever more critical to our success.”
In business, theory of mind is often understood as “emotional intelligence” (EQ). EQ helps explain how in tune with workplace ethos and employee morale leaders and workers are, as well as how effectively individuals are able to express and control their own emotions.
Though companies benefit from having emotionally intelligent employees at all levels, and many organizations consider emotional intelligence in their hiring and promotion decisions, PLNU’s Dr. Kim Hogelucht, professor of business, explains that high EQ is especially important for those in positions of leadership.
“Emotional intelligence is really at the root of leadership,” she said. “If we look at effective leaders throughout history, we can see that many of them possessed the qualities of emotional intelligence, such as the ability to empathize, excite, and motivate followers; however, we didn’t have a name for this powerful leadership attribute.”
Hogelucht emphasized that “emotional intelligence goes beyond simply being positive; it also involves resonating with employees in times of crisis. In other words, empathizing with employees and feeling a range of emotions.”
Though EQ is usually defined in business rather than religious terms, Hogelucht believes strongly that emotional intelligence is important for Christians to develop. “I believe emotional intelligence is fostered in a Christian environment,” she said. “At PLNU, part of our mission involves shaping our students. A key part of this ‘shaping’ involves empathizing with others and simply put, loving them. This is not always easy, as it may involve facilitating thoughtful discussions about right and wrong and how taking the tough road may not be easy but is good and just. As Christians, if we strive to be more like Christ every day, I believe we are striving to emulate the most emotionally intelligent leader of all time.”
To Teach and to Delight
If reading fiction can make us better thinkers who are more broadly aware and more empathetic (and thus more emotionally intelligent), it seems that the novel ought to remain an important part of our education and our culture. In the national conversations taking place about higher education, the arguments that literature can make us better thinkers and people are presented in defense of a liberal arts education.
Not all lovers of literature are happy with making such a practical case for reading fiction, believing that art’s primary purpose is not expediency. Among them is writer and critic Lee Siegel, who wrote in The New Yorker: “There is another way to look at the studies’ conclusions, however. Instead of proclaiming the superiority of fiction to the practical skills allegedly conferred by reading non-fiction, the studies implied that practical effects are an indispensable standard by which to judge the virtues of fiction. Reading fiction is good, according to the studies, because it makes you a more effective social agent. Which is pretty much what being able to read a train schedule does for you, too.”
Siegel also questions the assumption that increasing empathy automatically makes us better people.
“The empathetic gift can lead to generosity, charity, and self-sacrifice,” he said. “It can also enable someone to manipulate another person with great subtlety and finesse. Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.”
Blessing finds the debate about whether literature ought to be useful unnecessary.
“While I love the literariness of novels and other forms of literature,” she said, “I read and teach them for more than that. They are always both structure and content, art and teaching. The ancient writer Horace said literature’s purpose is two-fold: to teach and to delight. Perhaps literature actually teaches through delighting, through making lessons more palatable and placing them more deeply in the reader’s psyche.”