It’s All in the Eyes: A Surprising Benefit of Reading Fiction


Photo credit: Heather Neal
Photo credit: Heather Neal

Every night before bed I curl up with a book. My husband calls me a nerd, I roll my eyes, and poke some kind of jab at him about not being able to read. Then I turn back to my book and my husband turns back to ESPN. It’s a standing joke we have since we are polar opposites when it comes to reading for pleasure. I love it; he loathes it.

We’re told to read and read and read to our kids. It’s supposed to help build language and literacy skills. Kids who read for pleasure tend to be better at vocabulary and math as well. But about once they’re proficient readers? Is there a benefit to reading that goes beyond reading and writing?

Apparently so. Reading literary fiction books in particular can help us read people’s emotions better. In turn, that could help us be more understanding and empathic towards each other. The research is interesting — the study from The New School looked at how people could judge actors’ emotions from just looking at their eyes after reading different types of writing. They looked at nonfiction, literary fiction, and popular fiction. The researchers hypothesized that the literary fiction differed from the other types of work due to the idea that “literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers”.

I know, I know, this is boring. But what’s really cool is how people have differing degrees of ability to distinguish emotion solely from looking at someone’s eyes. To learn that the people who are better able to this are likely also the ones that read literary fiction is interesting. The fun part is figuring out where you fall on the spectrum. Me? I fall somewhere in the middle. I scored a 27 out of 36 on the New York Times test that simulates the type of tests done in the study. I loved that sometimes I was able to tell without a thought exactly what mental state the actor’s eyes were portraying, whereas other times I found it rather difficult.

If you’re not a literary fiction fan, other studies show that diving into a story emotionally can boost your empathy towards others regardless of the type of fiction you’re reading. The same did not hold true for nonfiction.

I didn’t really need a study to tell me I should keep reading or that I should keep encouraging my son to read, but it’s fascinating none the less. Maybe one of these days I can get my husband to actually read a book … I won’t hold my breath though.

If you’re curious how you do at gaging other people’s mental states, take the quiz and see. How’d you do?

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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