Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Hard Facts: Fiction Readers Have More Social Skills

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Over the past decade, academic researchers…from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness.” (The Business Case for Reading Novels“; Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 1/12/2012)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone (almost always a man) tell me that he doesn’t read fiction because he “can’t justify reading about something that didn’t happen.” Escaping into a novel feels like a luxurious indulgence, apparently, while reading non-fiction seems more educational and purposeful. Non-fiction, so the argument goes, will make you smarter, and that’s not necessarily the case for stories that are—gasp!—made up.

Despite being a writer of non-fiction, I love novels. I relish being transported into a world completely different than my own, and great fiction changes the way I look at the world. When I get lost in a book, I feel a shift in the way my brain interacts with my surroundings and processes my daily experiences, even when I’m not engaged in the act of reading. The stories stay with me.

This research (sent to me by one of my fabulous book club friends!) proves what shouldn’t really need proving: reading fiction has practical benefits. It creates empathy, which in turn improves social skills.

In one of Oatley and Mar’s studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. “The more fiction people [had] read,” they discovered, “the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues.” In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if “devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind,” they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities” allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects’ social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

“Theory of mind” is the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us, a pretty vital skill for anyone looking to make new friends or, I don’t know, exist in the world.

So the next time someone mentions to you that it’s silly to read fiction, enlighten him on the practical applications of a night with The Art of Fielding or Room or even The Hunger Games.  Is there a specific book that helped you empathize with those who are different from you? Or changed the way you see the world?

Want to meet me for dinner? GrubWithUs is hosting an MWF Seeking BFF fan dinner in Chicago next Wednesday, June 13 at 7:30. For $22, you’ll get to try a new restaurant (Costa Rican food!), share a hearty family-style meal, and meet me and other potential new BFFs. Sign up now — I’d love to Grub with you! (Read all about my first awesome GrubWithUs experience to see what you’re in for.)

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The Gods of Chinese Food

….are obviously buying what I’m selling.

 

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When You Don’t Like Your Friend’s Friends

When you make new friends, you may confront some unexpected hazards. Including: What if you don’t like your new friend’s friends?

This happens. A lot, I’m guessing. You meet someone at, say, the gym. You hang out at spin class week after week, eventually building up to post-bike brunch or pre-class stretch. After even more time passes, you start meeting in the real world, for dinners or movie play dates. And then, when you’ve passed the official friends threshold, your new pal invites you out with the girls. You meet her posse out for drinks, maybe. And then, it hits you: You can’t stand her friends.

While your new friend is funny, the other girls are crass. While she is smart, they are know-it-alls. It’s so disappointing, the realization that your potential new group is littered with people you don’t want to spend time with.

No one is forcing you, of course. You have options. You can learn to love these girls. Or you can stick to the gym relationship. Or only see your new friend one-on-one. You might be forced to explain why you keep turning down girls night invitations though, which is awkward.

Personally, I’d try a little from column A and a little from column B. Avoid the friends when I can, suck it up when I can’t and try to smile and laugh in all the right places. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s not a perfect world.

What would you do?

 

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