DRMacIver's Notebook

The people that live in your head

The people that live in your head

There’s a good Twitter question about books that have changed your worldview for the better. A lot of the ones listed are fiction, including mine.

A related question I asked the other day was about genre fiction provides good role models.

Although the primary purpose of fiction is of course entertainment, the primary benefit of fiction is that it fills your head with people.

There’s a study from a few years back about how reading fiction improves theory of mind:

Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano. “Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind.” Science 342.6156 (2013): 377-380.

Their conclusions were that literary fiction does improve theory of mind and popular fiction does not. I’m a little skeptical of this claim - it’s not that I doubt their conclusions in the particular experiment, but I think the implications are far less general than they claim.

I think a more reasonable (but perhaps less exciting / conducive to sharpening the axe they want to grind) set of conclusions would be:

  1. Reading fiction can improve your theory of mind.
  2. Which fiction you read may have a dramatic effect on how well it achieves that.

For example I think reading Pratchett’s witches books is likely to have a very strong impact on your theory of mind (it did for me), while reading, say, Xanth might go as far as to having a negative impact on your theory of mind.

That being said, while quality is of course important, I think quantity has a virtue all of its own, as long as there is a reasonable diversity of failure modes in that quantity. The nice thing about genre fiction is that people can and do read a lot of it, which gives you a large number of people in your head.

This is one of the reasons why having a good range of diversity of authors and protagonists is helpful - it begins to give you a theory of mind that encompasses a wide range of human experience.