Improvement of the mind through extensive reading

There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy states that in addition to the usual accomplishments necessary for an early 19th century young lady, one “must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” But just what are these improvements to the mind?

While perhaps not exactly what Darcy meant, in a recent Harvard Business Review post, “The Business Case for Reading  Novels,” Anne Kreamer argues that reading fiction is associated with empathy and theory-of-mind.

In one of Oatley and Mar’s studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. “The more fiction people [had] read,” they discovered, “the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues.” In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if “devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind,” they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities” allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects’ social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

Theory of mind, the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others’ points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.

Books not only allow us to experience lives and settings that we’ve previously been unexposed to, they also grant us insight into the emotional states and decision-making of characters. For doctors and medical students, understanding another’s point of view is crucial when interacting with colleagues and patients, often in stressful situations. Perhaps it’s time to start shelving Rowling with Robbins and Nabokov with Netter.

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