Can Reading Fiction literally change your mind?

July 21, 2016

As you may know, our promenade performance tour is seeped in the lives of some of the most famous writers in the world.  So this article, by Gregory Currie, the Professor and Head of Department of Philosophy at the University of York is interesting.  It was first published in The Conversation.



If you are committed to the pleasures of reading you may be pleased to discover that there is evidence to suggest that reading fiction is good for you. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science, the psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley lays out his stall, arguing that fiction, and especially literary fiction, is a beneficial force in our lives.

It has long been held – from the high-minded humanism that Dr Samuel Johnson espoused in the 18th century to the likes of the fiercely serious literary critic FR Leavis in the 20th century – that literature is good for you. But while once the only evidence considered necessary was that of the critic’s judgement and sensitivity, Oatley and other psychologists today are to be thanked for demanding rather more concrete evidence.

It’s difficult to test the claim that literature makes us better people. It won’t do just to see whether people who read a lot of fiction are, on average, more thoughtful, more helpful, better liked and perhaps more successful than people who don’t. There are so many other explanations, including the rather obvious idea that people who read a lot of fiction, especially the “quality” stuff, are coming from a more advantaged background to begin with – reading would be a trait that followed from their admirable qualities, rather than their cause.

Oatley bases his claim on various experimental evidence of his own and others, most of which has been conducted in the last 20 years. Among the reported effects of reading fiction (and in some cases other fiction with involving narratives, such as films and even videogames) are more empathetic responses – as self-reported by the participant, or occasionally demonstrated by increased helping behaviour afterwards – reductions in sexual and racist stereotyping, and improvements in figuring out the mental states of others.

Another interesting set of findings come from fMRI measurements of brain activation: we know that people have a tendency to engage in a kind suppressed imitation of the actions of others they are around. The same thing happens when reading about people’s actions: if a character in a story is said to pull a light cord, for example, the reader’s brain activates in areas associated with the initiation of grasping behaviour.

Many of these techniques involve testing people just after they have read something. It’s now widely believed that people can be “primed” to behave in certain ways for a short while, including being more co-operative and more sensitive to the states of others, simply by activating short-term connections in their thought processes. These are the kinds of short-term effects put to use by salesmen or stage magicians, and don’t represent genuine changes in a person’s disposition or behaviour, and certainly aren’t changes to personality or character.

Be careful what you wish for

Oatley gives many examples, but I simply want to suggest that we should be careful of jumping to conclusions. Because we all want to believe that fiction is good for us, we should be careful not to be persuaded too easily. And while a lot of the experiments produce interesting results, the claims made of them seem at times to be, well, ambitious.

Take Oatley’s idea that reading a short story changes people’s personalities “by significant amounts” and in “their own ways”. It would be extraordinary if simply reading a short story, even a good one, could produce significant change in your personality – especially changes you actually wanted to happen. We usually think that sort of character-building takes half a lifetime of hard work, if it happens at all. And what of the most voracious readers – are their personalities in a constant state of flux, depending on the type of fiction they have read most recently?

Oatley’s treatment of these experiments is built around his theory about the nature of fiction, and how it works to educate us. Fictions, he says, are “simulations” of reality, which he likens by analogy to the flight simulators used to train pilots. In the same way, he claims fictions help us to learn about the minds of others without going out there and making costly errors among real people.

But the analogy begs the question: flight simulators work as training aids only because their designers know very well how planes work and take care to have the simulators (appear to) work in the same way. We can’t assume that writers of fiction know how the mind works – in fact, psychologists such as Oatley himself have struggled to understand it using entirely different methods from novelists. If the novelists know, why are the psychologists bothering?

It would be surprising – as well as very disappointing – if fiction never made anyone a better person in some way. We can be pretty confident that some sorts of fiction (violent pornography, for example) are sometimes bad for some people. Human tendencies toward imitation strongly suggest this. Where I suspect this field of research is heading is to discover that some fictions are good for some people in some circumstances. Finding the which, who and what will take some time.

 

Visit London -Ten Things You Should Know About the British Exit from Europe. ‘Brexit'

June 24, 2016

1.  Brexit is a word that has become used as a shorthand way of saying the UK leaving the EU - merging the words Britain and exit to get Brexit, in a same way as a Greek exit from the EU was dubbed Grexit in the past.  A referendum took place in the UK on Thursday 23rd June, 2016.  Everyone in the UK (almost) was eligible to vote, just like in a general election. But on the ballot paper were just two questions.  Should the UK leave the EU or remain in the EU.


2. The E.U. - short for the Euro...


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Memories of Dylan Thomas and chapel Wales.

May 21, 2016

Having just celebrated the second Dylan Thomas day, we came across this on Facebook.  Written by Josh Brown, it's self-explanatory.  Nick Hennegan, our writer, really liked it and Josh gave us permission to repost it, so here it is.  Thanks Josh!

 

 
Brown's Hotel, Laugharne, Wales.

 

I have meant to post about my visit to Laugharne in the 70's since joining the [Dylan Thomas Facebook] group. Here it is........

 

I was born in a snowstorm in 1947, 6 years before Dylan died. My mo...


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John Steinbeck on Writing

April 3, 2016
I found this on the site of our friends at brainpickings.org.  I've written a random diary for years and sometimes felt it was a waste of time.  I also love "writing instruments" and paper and thought I was a bit weird!  Maria Popova and JS puts that right...

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible
“A good writer always works at the impossible.”
BY MARIA POPOVA



An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf sa...
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Dylan Thomas in the USA.

February 20, 2016
We've just found out we're going to host two special Dylan Thomas walks on Dylan Day on 14th May, thanks to the good folk at Literature Wales.

This is a post from our friends at The Writers Almanac you might find interesting if you like DT or America or both!


It was on this day in 1950 that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomasembarked on his first reading tour of the United States. He had always wanted to travel to America because he’d grown up in Wales watching American cowboy movies and American car...


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About Me


Nick Hennegan Hello. I started the London Literary Pub Crawl and most of the blogs on here will be by me. I've always written but my first theatrical success was an adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Henry V'. I founded Maverick Theatre in 1994. This pub crawl is really more a promenade theatre performance than a tour and I'm running it with Katie Merritt, who came on board to direct in 2014 and a bunch of enthusiastic local actors and writers. I love sharing my passion for the area and the artists. I also present a radio show on Resonance 104.4fm - London's Arts Station. It's called 'Literary London' and is on Fridays at 7pm (and repeated Weds at 7am.) If you haven't visited us in London yet, I hope you'll come soon. And feel free to leave comments or email me at nick @ LiteraryLondon.co - I reply to them all and I love to hear from you.

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