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Reading literary fiction may do more for you than provide enjoyment, distract you from stress, relieve your tension, or lift your mood. It may also boost your social skills by sharpening your ToM, or Theory of Mind.
Theory of mind is the ability to recognize different mental states – intentions, desires, knowledge, beliefs – in yourself and others, and to realize that others have intentions, desires and beliefs that are different from your own.
People with ToM capabilities are good at the complex social skill of "mind-reading," or discerning another individual's motivations, attitudes, moods or emotional states. This makes them adept at navigating social situations and relationships.
Reading literary fiction as a therapeutic tool, called bibliotherapy, is hardly new. A good novel can help us view others in situations similar to our own, see things from new or different perspectives, and express our feelings by identifying with a story’s characters.
So the notion that reading a novel can help us hone our people skills, or ToM, is not too surprising.
At The New School for Social Research, the ToM of study participants was measured after they read three different types of writing: popular fiction (taken from Amazon.com’s bestseller list), nonfiction (selected from Smithsonian Magazine), and literary fiction excerpts (from recent National Book Award finalists).
The research results showed that reading literary fiction improved an individual’s performance on several ToM measurement tasks. According to researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano:
Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of ... stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers. 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.
Autumn is a good time to curl up in a chair and devour a good book or two. Here are five literary fiction titles you may enjoy that will also sharpen your complex relationship skills, or ToM.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ~ William Styron
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