Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.
Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.
These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?
Perhaps people living in medieval societies were less preoccupied with the intricacies of other minds, simply because they didn’t have to be. When people’s choices were constrained and their actions could be predicted based on their social roles, there was less reason to be attuned to the mental states of others (or one’s own, for that matter). The emergence of mind-focused literature may reflect the growing relevance of such attunement, as societies increasingly shed the rigid rules and roles that had imposed order on social interactions.
But current psychological research hints at deeper implications. Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.
We humans owe our intensely social natures to biological evolution. We’re genetically endowed with a social intelligence that extends far beyond the reach of our nearest primate relatives. Even toddlers understand that people’s perspectives can differ from their own or that external actions are propelled by internal goals, and they are resistant to learning from adults whose knowledge appears dubious. But genes are only part of the story. We may come pre-equipped with a standard set of skills (a “start-up kit,” in the words of researchers Cecilia Heyes and Chris Frith), but the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability, varies quite a bit from person to person—and there’s growing evidence that complex mentalizing skills are culturally transmitted through a slow learning process, much like reading or playing chess. For example, while babes-in-arms are sensitive to basic emotions such as happiness or sadness, the ability to recognize socially intricate emotions like embarrassment or guilt only emerges at age 7 or later, and continues to be polished up well into adulthood.
The extent to which parents talk to their children about what others are thinking has been found to have profound effects on children’s ability to discern the contents of other minds. A study by Rosie Ensor and her colleagues showed that the frequency with which mothers used words such as think, forget, wonder, learn, or pretend when their children were just 2 years old predicted their mentalizing skills at ages 3, 6, and even 10.1
Heavy readers of fiction showed the highest level of brain activity.
It’s unlikely that these results arise from underlying genetic differences shared by parents and children—that is, that parents talk more about mental states because they themselves have better mentalizing abilities, which their children in turn are likely to inherit. Evidence for a direct role of language comes from psychologists Jennie Pyers and Ann Senghas, who studied deaf adults exposed to Nicaraguan Sign Language, a language that recently emerged when the Nicaraguan government began educating deaf children together in one national school.2 What began as a simple gesturing system has flowered into an elaborate and complex language, allowing researchers to study the birth and development of an entirely new language and its community.
Pyers and Senghas compared some of the earliest signers, who had learned the language in its more rudimentary form, with a group of younger signers who had learned the language at a later, more complex stage. They found that the early signers used fewer verbs describing mental states than those who had learned the later version of the language; they also performed worse on a test that probed for their ability to discern others’ beliefs. But when the researchers returned two years later, they found that the younger signers had graduated from school and begun to interact with the older signers, using the more complex version of Nicaraguan Sign Language. As a result, the older signers now used as many mental state verbs as their younger peers and performed just as well on the mentalizing test. Language had done for them what 25 years of less wordy social interaction had not.
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Nicaraguan Sign Language presents an elegant analogy: Just as it has incorporated, over several decades, new vocabulary for talking about mental states, Western literature has evolved, over several centuries, new literary techniques for expressing the mental states of characters.
As noted by literary scholar Monika Fludernik, medieval authors represented characters’ mental states mainly through their direct speech and gestures, which were used to convey intense emotions in a stereotypical way—lots of hand-wringing and tearing of hair, but few subtle gestures such as raised eyebrows or faint smiles flickering over lips. The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”). Moreover, emotions were usually predictable reactions to external actions or events, revealing little about a character that was complex or surprising.
Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, writes that in medieval or classical texts, “people are constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing, but they somehow manage to do this without the author drawing attention to these mental states.” This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700, when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays. Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, re-reading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.
The emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced omniscient narrators who could penetrate their characters’ psyches, at times probing motives that were opaque to the characters themselves. And by the 20th century, many authors labored not just to describe, but to simulate the psychological experience of characters. In her literary manifesto “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”
This clarion call was taken up by Dorothy Parker, as in the following passage of “Sentiment,” where she shapes sentences into obsessive, rhythmic loops of thought: “But I knew. I knew. I knew because he had been far away from me long before he went. He’s gone away and he won’t come back. He’s gone away and he won’t come back, he’s gone away and he’ll never come back. Listen to the wheels saying it, on and on and on.”
For Parker and many writers since, all facets of language—from sound to imagery to syntax—are tools for conveying mental states.
If mentalizing skills can be burnished by language that draws attention to mental states, has literature’s increasing use of such language improved readers’ social intelligence over the centuries? Psychologists can’t go back to the 1200s to administer batteries of tests to medieval denizens, but they can test and compare present-day humans whose reading habits differ.
Such research shows a clear link between people’s mentalizing skills and the books on their nightstands. In a study led by Raymond Mar, voracious readers of fiction were better than lighter consumers of fiction at making nuanced social judgments based on limited information—for example, deciphering complex emotions by looking at photographs of people’s eyes, and using subtle cues in videos of social interactions (such as guessing who was the child of the two adults in the video based on body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal information).3 Heavy readers of expository nonfiction showed the opposite pattern, performing worse than lighter readers of nonfiction. Other research, using similar tests, has found a specific advantage for reading literary fiction4 compared with popular genre fiction, or for romance fiction5 over science fiction.
These studies don’t prove that a particular literary diet nourishes social intelligence; it’s hard to rule out the possibility that people who are more attuned to other minds are simply more interested in reading about them in the first place, in which case, reading habits would be one result of social intelligence. The ideal experiment would randomly assign people to different reading regimens over a sustained period and then compare the effects.
A story that was strong enough to shift the needle of my moral compass was “93990” by George Saunders.
A slightly more practical (and modest) attempt to demonstrate causality was undertaken by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano; in their experiments, volunteers were randomly assigned to read a single text of either literary fiction, popular genre fiction, or nonfiction before taking a test of their ability to identify complex emotions based on photos that were tightly cropped around a subject’s eyes.6 The results showed that those who had read the literary fiction text had higher scores than the others, suggesting that certain kinds of reading can stimulate mental processes that are relevant to identifying the emotions of others. Unlike formulaic popular fiction, which tends to rely on stereotypical characters and transparent motives, characters in literary fiction act in surprising and ambiguous ways that spill beyond the confines of familiar scripts. In a typical thriller (or medieval saga, for that matter) a character might respond to the murder of a wife with homicidal vengeance, a reaction that requires little analysis; but if he were to send the killer letters impersonating the dead wife—a literary novel just waiting to be written!—this would trigger deeper speculation about his motives and mental state.
Kidd and Castano’s study is controversial, in part because of its lack of clear criteria for determining the categories of “literary fiction” versus “popular fiction,” and in part because several recent studies have failed to replicate7 its results (though similar findings8 have been reported for watching an award-winning TV drama versus a documentary).
Nonetheless, additional research using brain imaging supports their general claims, showing that at least some of the time, reading can stimulate the same mental processes that are involved in deciphering other minds. Diana Tamir and her colleagues found that different patterns of brain activity were elicited by passages of text that were rich in social content compared with passages loaded with vivid spatial details.9 In reading the social passages, people fired up the same brain network that is active in performing various tests of mentalizing skills. Moreover, consistent with the hypothesis that such texts can train social intelligence, heavy readers of fiction showed the highest level of brain activity in the mentalizing network during reading.
Another study, conducted in the Netherlands, also found heightened activity in the mentalizing network in response to literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.10 In contrast, action-focused passages provoked activity in a very different network involving the visual and motor cortices. Although this study didn’t delve into the literary habits of the volunteers, individual brains differed in striking ways: Subjects seemed to divide up into those whose brains were most responsive to action sequences, versus those whose brains resonated to thinking about characters.
Overall, there is mounting evidence for literature’s potential to reshape the mind. But we still know little about which qualities of a text, or which literary techniques, best arouse the mentalizing network. And, as the brain imaging evidence suggests, the neural activity provoked by any given text may depend largely on the reader—not just on what is being read, but what has been read in the past, and how the reader is now approaching the text.
Aside from psychological experiments with present-day subjects, we can also look closely at literature itself for clues about the mentalizing powers of readers throughout history. All authors make choices about how much to state explicitly and how much to leave implicit. These choices reveal authors’ tacit assumptions about how large a gap between language and intention their readers will be able to leap over, how well their readers will be able to elaborate thoughts that are underspecified by language itself.
Contemporary literature is full of broad gaps. The author Margaret Atwood notes that her own writing was influenced by Beatrix Potter, whom she describes as a master of oblique discourse.11 In The Tale of Mr. Tod, Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit are in pursuit of Tommy Brock, a badger who has captured Benjamin’s children in a bag and is headed home, where he will likely eat them. On the way, the two rabbits pass the house of Cottontail Bunny, and ask if her husband, a black rabbit, is home, presumably to ask for his help in confronting Tommy Brock. In response, Cottontail says nothing about her husband, but simply states, “Tommy Brock had rested twice while she watched him.” As the two rabbits continue their pursuit, Peter says, “He was at home; I saw his black ears peeping out of the hole.” Benjamin replies, “They live too near the rocks to quarrel with their neighbours …”
Atwood writes, “At the age of four, I quickly grasped that Cottontail had lied, but the ‘rocks’ remark took some thought. Finally, I got it: Tommy Brock has a shovel, and those that live in burrows too near the rocks are easy to catch by digging. Long-term craft lesson: no need to spell everything out because the reader is the co-creator of the story and can be depended on to pick up the dropped clues.”
Research shows a clear link between people’s mentalizing skills and the books on their nightstands.
Atwood was undoubtedly a precocious 4-year-old, but there is evidence that average children can pick up such dropped clues, and that this process not only activates mentalizing networks in the brain, but that it hones these skills even more than the explicit labeling of mental states. In one study, kindergarten children heard stories such as Rosie’s Walk, in which a hen walks through a barnyard, appearing to be blithely unaware that she is being followed by a fox.12 A second group of children heard the same stories, but with mental states clearly identified. “Rosie heard the loud BUMP but did she figure out that the hungry fox was behind her? No, she didn’t turn around. She doesn’t know that he’s behind her.” The first group, forced to read between the lines, later performed better than the second group on a test that required them to infer the beliefs of others.
When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational. I’ve read many pieces over the years that have addressed the ethical implications of experimentation with animals. But the only one that provoked an empathic response strong enough to shift the needle of my moral compass was a story by George Saunders titled “93990.” Which is striking, because this story is written in the dispassionate form of a lab report documenting the effects of a toxic substance administered to a group of 20 monkeys. There are virtually no mental state verbs; no subjective interpretations or introspections; no incursions into anyone’s consciousness. The story borrows the robes of academic language to describe, with utter detachment, the growing distress and eventual deaths of the test subjects.
Of course, it’s precisely because the sterile language of the story refuses to acknowledge the inner experiences of either the test subjects or the experimenters that the story had such an effect on me. Rather than drawing attention to the mental states of his characters, Saunders was inviting me to reflect on them by creating a chasm between the horrors of what the experimenter was observing, and the language in which it was being observed.
The effect is deeply moving. And intimate: It is as if Saunders himself has beckoned me over and silently parted a curtain, inviting me to stand next to him and watch the events unfolding behind it. With no one’s thoughts ever overtly expressed or described, I find myself thinking of the physical and mental agony of the animals and the conditioned indifference of the scientists, and thinking about the mind of Saunders thinking about the minds of the animals and the minds of the scientists we are watching together.
Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary, and is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. She is currently writing a book about losing and reclaiming a native tongue.
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2. Pyers, J.E. & Shenghas, A. Language promotes false-belief understanding: Evidence from learners of a new sign language. Psychological Science 20, 805-812 (2009).
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5. Fong, K., Mullin, J.B., & Mar, R.A. What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 7, 370-376 (2013).
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9. Tamir, D.I., Bricker, A.B., Dodell-Feder, D., & Mitchell, J.P. Reading fiction and reading minds: The role of simulation in the default network. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11, 215-224 (2016).
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11. The Stories That Changed Margaret Atwood’s Life www.cbc.ca (2013).
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Lead photo collage credits: Fernando Cortes / gilotyna4 / Shutterstock