Literary Fiction's Influence on Social Cognitive Brain Activity

Olivia Grace Cadwell


We think of reading fiction as mainly entertainment, but a recent study (Kidd & Castano, 2013) found that literary fiction, in comparison to popular fiction or nonfiction, improves Theory of Mind (ToM) skills in adults. ToM refers to the ability to accurately ascribe, predict, or understand others' perspectives, intentions, beliefs, mental states, and actions. The present study extends the previous research by examining the neurological aspects of ToM after exposure to literary or popular fiction using EEG analysis. Directly after reading either a popular fiction or literary fiction short story, college students engaged in an EEG task to measure neural activity. The results suggest that the brain areas involved in ToM skills are significantly more active not only while reading, but for some time after exposure to literary fiction compared to other types of writing. Implications of my research include the importance of reading for social cognitive development in early education and beyond, as well as potential benefits for individuals with social cognition disorders, such as those with autism spectrum disorders. No prior research has demonstrated the impact of reading literature on brain activity with respect to social cognition (e.g., Theory of Mind). This research is significant in that it ties a behavioral finding of improved social cognition after reading literature to an expansive set of neuroimaging studies related to the brain areas involved in social cognition.


Theory of Mind, literary fiction, mirror neurons

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