MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Let's say you're in the mood for a good story. You could reach for a best-selling page-turner, maybe a crime novel or a popular romance, or you could go more highbrow, like a literary novel, the kind of fiction that might win the National Book Award.

A new study suggests that the kind of fiction you read could affect how well you can later read people in real life. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that so-called literary fiction may boost your ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The scientists who did this study admit that the line between literary fiction and popular fiction is blurry, but they do see differences. Emanuele Castano is a professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York. He says in popular fiction, the characters aren't that complex.

EMANUELE CASTANO: Characters in popular fiction tend to be, you know, stereotypes and as expected. You know, you open a book of what we call popular fiction, and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What draws the reader in is the plot. He says in literary fiction, the focus is on the characters' inner lives. The characters are complicated and a little cryptic. The reader has to infer what they're thinking and feeling.

CASTANO: This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we're trying to guess other people's feeling and thoughts and emotions and to read their mind in everyday life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, Castano and his colleague David Kidd decided to see if reading literary fiction might make people better at that kind of guessing. In a series of experiments, volunteers were randomly given excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction and nonfiction. For example, a person might have read the first 10 pages or so from a popular Danielle Steele novel called "The Sins of the Mother." Here's a bit of the audio book version.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO BOOK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Although she wielded enormous power and her eyes were sharp, there was something gentle about her face. She was a woman everyone took seriously, yet she was quick to laugh.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or maybe they got the first pages of a more literary work.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO BOOK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My father licked these dry lips and cast about, searching for the smell of food perhaps, the sound of pots or the clinking of glasses or footsteps.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's from "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich. Some of the volunteers were assigned to read nothing. Then, everyone had to take tests that measured how well they perceived people's inner states. For example, one test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" asked people to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and decide what emotion was being expressed.

The group that had just read a short bit of literary fiction did significantly better on these tests of mindreading, while the popular fiction group did no better than people who weren't given anything to read. Castano says popular fiction probably does a lot of good things for you. He likes a good page-turner himself.

CASTANO: But it's unlikely that it's going to train you to read other people's mind, whereas literary fiction, because of, you know, its very characteristics, requires that from the reader.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The study is published in the journal Science, and it impressed Raymond Mar. He's a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto who has investigated the link between fiction and empathy.

RAYMOND MAR: What I think is really exciting about this study is it demonstrates for the first time short-term causal effects of exposure to fiction and its benefits, in comparison to not reading at all or reading other types of genre.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mar says there used to be this stereotype that reading was a solitary, sort of antisocial activity.

MAR: I think what was ignored is that they were entering an imagined social environment. So there's a lot of parallels between imagining oneself in a world of fiction, full of characters, different personalities and different goals, and, you know, actually interacting in the real world.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says so many people spend so much time reading that its social effects really need to be understood scientifically. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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