Campus News

Theory of Mind and the Liberal Arts

October 9, 2013
Marvin Krislov
Photo credit: John Seyfried

A study published recently in the journal Science showed that reading literary fiction temporarily enhanced test subjects’ ability to understand the mental state of others, “a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.” This skill is known as Theory of Mind (ToM).

The study quickly drew media attention, garnering headlines such as “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” on the New York Times website. The study was conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emaneuele Castano, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

I was hooked by the headlines, in part because Anton Chekhov is one of my favorite writers. I’m a great fan of his short stories and plays filled with tragicomic characters that tempt the audience to laugh one moment and cry the next. If reading Chekhov enables one to better understand and relate to other people in one’s daily life, so much the better.

So I read the Times’ story and then the study. It is fascinating. The researchers recruited subjects via Amazon.com ranging from 18 to 75 years of age. Each was paid a few dollars to read for a few minutes and then take computerized tests which measured their cognitive and/or affective ToM. For example, in one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” participants “were asked to identify facially expressed emotions.”

Some participants read excerpts from one of three finalists for the National Book Award or works by canonical writers such as Chekhov. Others read nonfiction, still others read popular fiction bestsellers from Amazon. com or romance or science fiction novels. In some cases, the participants read nothing at all.

The results showed positive short term effects of reading literary fiction on cultivating empathy and reducing antisocial behavior as measured by Theory of Mind tests. This supported the authors’ contention “that literary fiction, which we consider to be both writerly and polyphonic, uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to character’s subjective experiences. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”

To be clear, the authors did not present their findings as a cure for empathy deficiency or other behaviors. They acknowledged the limits of their research, and suggested further work is needed to study “other forms of art, such as plays and movies, that involve identifying and interpreting the subjective experience of others”

For me, the study not only reinforced my love of literature and Chekhov, it underscored the importance of the humanities in general in cultivating understanding of others and empathy. Like most of us, I suspect, I can point to writers and works that profoundly influenced by life at various points—the Greeks, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Lessing, Kundera, and Morrison come to my mind.

The study also strikes me as strongly affirming the value of liberal education and the study of literature to the development of positive social relationships. We can better relate to others if we can imagine the interior lives of complex people rather than stereotyping them, or if we view life in non-solipsistic terms. We might also want to parse the differences between different types of writing, and as the study suggests, extend this analysis to other forms of art. And, of course, trying to analyze the study and its limits draws on our analytical and critical thinking skills in psychology and quantitative analysis.

Some of us might suggest other ToM studies on improving social relationships, such as creating quiet zones in which electronic devices are banned and social interactions are face-to-face. But in any event, the New School study should inspire us to think about the ways in which reading and understanding great literature improves our quality of life—throughout our lifetimes.

Speaking of great writing and insights into the human experience, I invite the community to participate in the activities this weekend celebrating the legacy of Romulus Linney ‘53, the distinguished playwright and author. We are fortunate to be welcoming his family and friends to campus, and I encourage all to take part. Also, check out the Romulus Linney exhibit on the first floor of Mudd.

New York Times Online

I want to remind everyone that Oberlin College is offering full access to the online version of the New York Times for all Oberlin College students, faculty, and staff! For free!

Just go to nytimes.com/grouppass from a computer connected directly to the campus network, and register using your Oberlin.edu address. Once registered you’ll be able to access NYTimes.com from any computer/tablet/device you use. Although the page references “24 Hours of access,” access is for a full year.

You’ll need to re-register next fall, and yearly after that for as long as you’re a student, faculty, or staff member at Oberlin College. If you already have an active NYTimes.com account associated with your e-mail address you will not be able to register for the campus group account until you cancel your current account and your access has run out.

Access to NYTimes.com is being provided by the Oberlin College Library and the offices of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dean of the Conservatory, President, and Communications.

So sign up soon and enjoy! If you have questions or problems registering, contact Jessica Grim at jessica.grim@oberlin.edu or 775-5035.

Cross Country

Last but not least, congratulations to our cross country teams on their outstanding performance at the All-Ohio races this past weekend. The women’s team finished first in Division III, while the men’s squad came in third. Senior Molly Martorella won the women’s race, and sophomore Geno Arthur won the men’s. Each was named Runner of the Week by the North Coast Athletic Conference. Congratulations to all our Yeowomen and Yeomen harriers and their coaches on the brilliant performance.

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