An emerging theory suggests exposure to narrative fiction can improve an individual’s ability to understand what other people are thinking or feeling.
Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, said, “we understand stories using basic cognitive functions, and there is not a special module in the brain that allows us to do this. Understanding stories is similar to the way we understand the real world.”
The fiction genre often includes stories about people, their mental states, and relationships. And in fiction, even stories with inanimate objects may have human-like characteristics.
In a presentation at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention, Mar said, “When people read stories we invoke personal experiences. We’re relying not just on words on a page, but also our own past experiences.”
“We often have thoughts and emotions that are consistent with what’s going on in a story,” he said.
According to Mar, social outcomes that could come out of being exposed to narrative fiction can include exposure to social content, reflecting on past social interactions, or imagining future interactions.
The stories often help us to gain insight into things in the past that relate to a character in a story, and resonate with our experiences.
“Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships,” Mar said.
According to one study, over 75 percent of books typically read to preschoolers frequently reference mental states, and include very complex things such as false-belief or situational irony.
“Children between the ages of three and five years old acquire a theory-of-mind, in other words, an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs, and desires that may differ from their own,” Mar said.
“Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking.”
In 2010, Mar and colleagues published a study which found that parents who were able to recognize children’s authors and book titles predicted their child’s performance on theory-of-mind tests.
Theory-of-mind tests included testing if a child is able to understand that someone may prefer broccoli over a cookie, and how that is unique from their own desire for the cookie.
Parental recognition of adult book titles or author’s had no effect on their child’s performance — the result was very specific to children’s books.
Mar said the studies available are correlations, which do not provide an explanation of causation, and more research is necessary to understand why these correlations exist. His research also illustrates that exposure to movies predicted better theory-of-mind test performance in children.
But the more television a child was exposed to, the worse they performed on theory-of-mind tests.
Although studies to investigate this observation have not been performed, there are a few theories. One possibility is that parents may engage more in discussions of mental states during a movie versus a television show, or possibly the fact that children may have difficulty following a television show broken up by commercial breaks.
“There are aspects of joint-reading between parents and children that seem to be important to the process,” Mar said.
There may be discussions of mental states, and more discussions during joint-reading than throughout other moments of daily life between a parent and child.
These discussions may play a significant role in a child’s development.
A recent study Mar highlights shows that reading a child a tale about honesty led the child to act more honestly when presented with an opportunity to lie or cheat.
There is some evidence that adults who process stories deeply and are highly engaged in the story report more empathy, but the results have been inconsistent.
Mar’s study in 2006 illustrated that fiction predicts an individual’s ability to infer mental states from photographs, and the result has been replicated by a number of other studies.
Studies have shown that narrative fiction correlates with better mental-inference ability and more liberal social attitudes.
“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world,” Mar said. “And imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat — it’s not a magic bullet, it’s an opportunity for change and growth.”