Do You Want to Understand Others?

UnknownResearch released last week suggests that if you want to better equip people to understand others, and help their mental well-being, you should encourage them to put down their popular, commercial fiction and read more classic literary fiction.

In a series of experiments, participants read a short passage, and then completed several tasks, including one in which they were encouraged to identify people’s facial expressions in photos. (I confess this type of social psychology and study deeply fascinates me.) Analysts said that when people read the less commercial fiction the response in their performance temporarily improved. (This research, according to an October 4 USA Today story, was done by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New York School for Social Research in New York.) Kidd says, “The effect was the same (even for not particularly well-read subjects) . . . if they pick up a work of literary fiction and read it, they will be more sensitive to other people’s subjective states.” But why is this true?

Castano says that he believes this is true because literary novelists make readers work harder at understanding characters. “The writer doesn’t give you a coherent, complete, easily understandable ‘stereotype’ account of that person – quite the opposite.” He cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Russian classic Crime and Punishment saying “it gives you contradictory information. It shows the person behaving in ways that are not easily interpretable, or at least interpretable in many different ways. By doing so, and not giving you the whole picture, it forces you the reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character.” And reading such fiction requires the reader to think about their view of the world and to assume that it could be wrong. Kidd and Castano write that it requires readers to find “meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings.”

This I am sure of – truth is often more intuitive than didactic. There are a number of ways that we process what is true, good and right. Fiction, especially really well-developed fiction, helps us do this in ways that are not surprising to me. But there is a pressing and interesting question that occurred to me as I read this study. The Bible is not fiction, at least as we think of a story being told as fiction, or “made up in the author’s mind.” But the Bible is a story, even a story book, far more than it is a series of propositions like you find in philosophy or science. It is a meta-narrative that draws you into a complex, yet profoundly simple, story line. If more Christians read the Bible as a story, and less for emotional arguments, I wonder if they would be much more sensitive to others. I would bet the farm that the research would support this conclusion but for now it is just my own unproven hunch. What do you think?

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