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Monday, 2 December 2013

Literature is the thing that best prepares you for life

It has long been my belief that reading good books fosters empathy: the ability to appreciate how others feel. I don't know why I got this idea but it has long seemed logical that exposing the mind to a wide variety of disparate situations in this area of erzatz (though rich) experience would make people better able to feel how others feel. Empathy is a particularly important asset in a modern, pluralistic society that functions in a globalised world because it is crucial to be able to make good choices periodically - for example within the political cycle - that accurately reflect the individual's best interests. So it's a very practical thing. Yes, it can make your son or daughter a better friend. But it also makes them better citizens, and this, in the collective, is a crucial element of their lives well beyond the time that they will regularly come to you to help them solve their problems.

The thing that I want to point out here is that I was right all along. A study undertaken by researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York, and published in the journal Science in September, found "that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence."

These are "skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking".
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
We know from other studies that reading activates the same parts of the brain as when a thing is experienced directly, so that a rich metaphor that exploits a physical sensation lights up those parts of the brain usually used to reflect the actual sensation itself, for example touch or feeling cold. In a real sense, then, reading literature enables our brains to directly experience what is described in the words on the page. The study merely shows that literary fiction provides a richer experience for the brain because it tends to challenge the reader to infer conclusions about situations, while other forms of writing are less ambiguous. We can go a step further and claim that this ambiguity inherent in literature helps the reader to become a better person, because it forces him or her to make up his or her own mind in any given situation. That ability to make good decisions is the crucial thing when it comes to being a good citizen. Not only that, but it is also important to be able to cope with complexity, to hold multiple ideas in the mind simultaneously.

In the digital era new experiments are being devised to help us to understand how reading actually functions, such as this one involving a Dutch writer based in New York who is writing a book while wired up to measure brain activity. Once he has finished writing the book, researchers will wire up a group of readers, whose responses will also be gauged while reading the same book. A comparison can then be made between brain activity for the writer and brain activity for the reader, at exactly the same points in the narrative-to-be.

It is exciting times for those interested in the soft arts. These areas of endeavour are often overlooked when it comes to addressing social issues but it should be remembered that everything comes from the arts. In writing, in creating new ideas, in nominalising - making a whole sentence be represented by a single word, which has happened time and time again throughout recorded history, for example with the word "selfie" - lie the roots of every science we participate in today. And writing remains a central part of every science project, not just in order to further it on a technical level but also to communicate it to the broader community. And that is a key ingredient of the work of all scientists, as they will readily tell you if you ask.

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