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Rose Petals: Literature Can Be of Value in Real Life!

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Kathleene Runnels is responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Wilson County News or
October 28, 2013 | 2,650 views | Post a comment

“When will I ever use this in real life?” Such is the common query of students who resist the study of algebra, chemistry, Beowulf, Macbeth, etc. As a former high school English teacher, it was a challenge, (one I gladly accepted), to motivate and inspire students to embrace great literary works. And it was likewise very satisfying when those complaining students found that they could, in fact, find value and enjoyment in those great pieces. Knowledge for its intrinsic worth is a hard sell, but there is a recently published article, based on serious, controlled research, that supports the theory that classical literature can be of value in real life.

The research, conducted by David Kidd, formerly of Devine, Texas, and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano, was published this October 3rd in Science magazine. The article describes five experiments conducted to affirm the theory that the reading of literary fiction aides people’s capacity for recognizing the thoughts and emotions of others. He explains, “Some researchers call it 'mindreading' or 'mentalizing', and it is a critical ability.” Psychologists refer to this as Theory of Mind (ToM). The report is introduced with this statement, “Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.” (Sciencexpress/3 October, 2013) Noteworthy, too, is that NYT published an article describing this research on its front page on Friday, October 4. (

As educators face changing requirements of students and evolving requirements of what is deemed important to teach, debates over such things as types of fiction and the importance of the arts are ongoing. Therefore, David felt it to be critical to supplement those debates with “empirical research”.

Kidd and Castano found that participants who were assigned the reading of just a few pages from a short story or the reading of an excerpt from a novel performed “significantly better” on tests than did those who were assigned to read “expository nonfiction, genre/popular fiction, or nothing at all.” David elaborates, “We predicted that reading literary fiction would lead participants to pay close attention to others' thoughts and feelings and so cause them to perform better on a test of this mind-reading ability. And that is just what we found: Reading literature draws our attention to other people, improving our ability to understand them.”

Those of us who love literature applaud his theory and his findings! For me, it is interesting to consider that the types of entertaining novels we read, as well as the types of movies and TV shows we choose to watch, enable us to somewhat predict outcomes and behavior. In the great masterpieces, however, we are often surprised, and many times disappointed, in those outcomes. In short, fictional literary characters are less predictable.

David enlightens us: “What I find most interesting about the results of these experiments is the idea that the cultural world around us impacts how our mind works. If we place ourselves in an environment that tells us that people are more or less predictable and defined by their social class, race, gender, or occupation, we may end up actually believing that to be the case. One of the things that great writers and artists do is to remind us that people are not simple, that everyone's life is deeply complex and marked by the same challenges and moments of joy as our own.”
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