Researchers describe “theory of mind” as the ability to recognize mental states in others and understand that they may have perspectives and desires that are different from our own. The term, from cognitive science, and the concept of social-emotional skill-building, is now very much in vogue in U.S. classrooms. And ongoing research indicates students might be able to improve their theory of mind abilities by reading fiction.
A 2013 study by Harvard University researchers and Joseph Coulson, now president of the Great Books Foundation, found study participants who immersed themselves in the mental life of fictional characters performed better on theory of mind tasks. While researchers stopped short of claiming causation, they theorized about how reading fiction could improve such ability.
“One possibility is that fiction provides an opportunity to simulate the character’s social experience and thus provide a forum for the reader to practice reasoning about others’ mental states,” the paper reads. “Another possibility is that fiction helps readers build their social knowledge by exposing them to social rules and contingencies presented in the context of the story.”
Coulson, who spent almost 20 years as an English teacher, primarily at the high school level, sees reading fiction as an important element in social-emotional development among students. His evangelism for fiction, however, comes in troubled times.
The Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts emphasize the importance of having students read nonfiction and develop a facility for academic language. A fake news scandal during the latest election season has prompted some to go so far as to question the validity of the results of the tests. And recent research out of Stanford University showed students of all ages are poorly equipped to assess the legitimacy of information presented online.
Thanks to the common core, in schools across the country there is a sense of urgency to help students be more critical consumers of nonfiction. But Coulson is among those who believes fiction should not be left behind as a result. He says reading nonfiction falls outside of the realm of social-emotional learning. The implication is this; if we fail to foster critical thinking skills using fictional texts, we are in danger of unleashing a new generation of young adults unprepared emotionally to be empathetic, global citizens.
It’s not engaging you on an emotional level and it’s not asking you to understand a kind of social ordering that is not familiar to you.
Simply by reading fiction, students must decipher the feelings and mental states of characters who may not be saying or acting in line with their emotions. Teachers who assign pieces of imaginative literature ask students to do this work and amplify the impact by getting students to discuss the stories and their interpretations of them. These conversations offer practice with civil discourse, and they force students to think about other students’ perspectives and possible interpretations of a single text. When classroom assignments develop students’ social-emotional skills, they might also foster an ability to regulate one’s own emotions, and communicate or otherwise form relationships with others who think differently.
“There’s something very powerful about that and also something very egalitarian about it,” Coulson says. “The teacher moves out of the role of didactic expert who’s going to tell you what you should think about this. Instead, you engage students in this other way.”
Students need to develop a sense of media literacy and critical thinking that will allow them to fulfill their roles in a democracy. Reading nonfiction can help that. But as schools seek to educate the “whole child,” teachers and administrators may want to keep the value of fiction in mind for its impact on the developing brain, and the development of future adults who can work with others.