I’ve always thought that if you want to be as smart as you can be you need a solid liberal arts education. I’m not knocking math, science, business, medicine—all those schools of knowledge that enable us to run the world. But to live in the world requires a different kind of intelligence, including the ability to explore various patterns of thought, perceive subtle differences, and process conflicting or ambiguous information.
Now a study from the University of Toronto shows reading fiction may help us develop those skills.
According to “Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure” by Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley & Mihnea C. Moldoveanu, published in the Creativity Research Journal (2013), reading fiction could lead to better ways of processing information, including creativity.
Researchers hypothesized that exposure to short stories, as compared with exposure to nonfiction essays, will decrease readers’ need to reach quick conclusions in their thinking and to avoid ambiguity and confusion. They noted that previous studies have shown that a heightened need for this kind of thinking causes people to consider smaller amounts of information before making decisions and to use simpler ways of interpreting that information. Other studies have shown that people with a high need for reaching conclusions or achieving “cognitive closure,” as the researchers call it, also produced figures and objects judged to be less creative by independent judges.
To test the hypothesis, the researchers worked with 100 students between the ages of 18 and 53 at the University of Toronto. The essays and short stories used were chosen from anthologies, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and scored for readability and interest level to avoid uncontrolled variables.
Participants completed several questionnaires before and after their readings. According to the questionnaire results, the researchers were right. Participants who read short stories showed less need to reach quick conclusions and to stick with those conclusions than participants who read essays. Additionally, researchers found that participants who normally read a great deal of fiction and those who normally read a great deal of nonfiction both showed a lower need for closure after reading a short story than participants who normally read little fiction or nonfiction.
So, reading fiction is good for the brain, but why? The researchers pointed out that while thinking processes used in reading fiction are similar to those used in everyday life, thinking while reading doesn’t require a decision, and so it has less urgency. Readers can think like the characters in the book, but they don’t have to act. And they can think like characters who are totally different from them.
Isn’t that fascinating? To me, these findings support the heart of literature, and I highly recommend reading the study’s full report. A good book or story needs to be entertaining, for sure, but it also must give the reader something to think about, and by its very nature, it can expand consciousness.
At the end of the study, the researchers raise some important questions. Although this study focused on short-term decreases in the need for closure, how much exposure to literature is needed to achieve long-term decreases? Also, what will be the long-term effects of current cutbacks of education in the arts and humanities?
Are we doomed to future generations of more close-minded and less creative people? It certainly gives us something to think about.