Friday, June 27, 2008

An Eye on Fiction

As an obsessive reader, I have always been interested in what so much fiction-reading was doing to my mind, and how it made me see the world and occasionally reconsider the way this maddening planet functions.

I’ve known and written at length about the beneficial effect that bibliotheraphy has on people who are either down or actually heading towards depression. I have often recommended books to colleagues and friends when I perceive them heading towards a black dog state. They have thanked me as the book made them alter their thinking. Despite the common snidey swipes I’ve faced based on the stereotypes that often present readers of fiction as socially inept animals, unable to cope with reality, wasting their time, or just plain weird -- I am happy to report that fiction readers are the complete converse. This is scientifically proven so I no longer feel odd discussing books at the dinner table, because -- thanks to New Scientist -- I can tell from the eyes, that what they’re thinking about me, is wrong, damned wrong.

I have subscribed to Britain’s weekly New Scientist magazine for many years. I recently read a very interesting article by Keith Oatley, who is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto. The piece was called “The Science of Fiction.” Unfortunately New Scientist’s online presence is a subscription only facility but Oatley’s paper is abstracted here:
The Victorians thought that reading Greek and Latin classics, including the stories of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil, would equip them for life. In the 20th century, great novels were considered to be improving. These days, with all the competing attractions of video games, the internet and movies, parents may be happy if their children read anything at all, while adults who enjoy fiction are more likely to view it as purely pleasurable rather than educative or life-enhancing. That is ironic, because for the first time in history there is now scientific evidence that reading fiction really does have psychological benefits.
Basically the paper reports on a scientific experiment carried out by Oatley and his colleagues where they took a large sample of people in the following groups: [a] readers of fiction; [b] readers of non-fiction as well as [c] non-readers.

They compensated for gender, race, age and all other factors and tested the sampled groups’ cognitive processes. It is an absolutely fascinating experiment which reported that readers of fiction are more insightful, have highly developed empathy and understand the social manners that the world works to, compared to non-readers and readers who read non-fiction only. To understand why fiction readers have the advantage click here for PDFs of Oately’s scientific papers that examine the link between reading and cognitive abilities.

Part of the test involved the test-group looking at eyes and reporting what they saw. I found this test fascinating and scored 33 out of 36, indicating a high level of perception. My wife who is only an occasional reader scored only 22.

Try this test for yourself and see how you rate to discover the links between reading and the effect it has on the mind, or visit Oatley’s Blog and discover that, despite his scientific background, he also wrote two novels.

Oh and did you guess whose eyes appear in this piece? I took the photo, so can offer a clue: the writer shown is currently at the top of his game and I’m all eyes whenever he releases a new novel.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

As this subject interests me greatly, I will certainly follow up on this article. Recently, I read a good book on the subject. You might want to check out LOST IN A BOOK: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF READING FOR PLEASURE by Victor Nell, Yale University Press, 1988. Nell brings out many interesting observations and perspectives on what he terms "ludic" reading.

Saturday, June 28, 2008 7:26:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous jim treacher said...


Saturday, June 28, 2008 8:56:00 AM PDT  
OpenID katrich said...

I was so pleased to instantly recoginize those eyes--such a nice guy and a terrific writer!

Thanks for the links, Ali! I feel much smarter (and smuger) abut my reading now.

Kat Richardson

Saturday, June 28, 2008 10:39:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...


Saturday, June 28, 2008 12:46:00 PM PDT  
Blogger by Karen Dionne said...

Fascinating, Ali! I'll have to get my husband, an occasional nonfiction, but mostly non-reader, to try this. I write fiction, and I scored 34.

Saturday, June 28, 2008 8:06:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an avid reader of mainly fiction, have been all my life. I scored a surprisingly low 19, which apparently is low for any person, even a non-reader ... This may partly be because I'm not a native English speaker, but still, my English is not bad and often the expression I saw in these eyes was just not among the options given.
In my life, I have experienced and learned to value the amazing effects of bibliotherapy, but apparently the eyes just didn't register in my mind ...

Sunday, June 29, 2008 1:21:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

A low score would not concern me: I think it's pretty non-scientific and meant -- at least in part -- to be in fun.

Sunday, June 29, 2008 10:19:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Friday, July 4, 2008 3:05:00 PM PDT  

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