There's little quantifiable value to arts and literature but they hold a great deal more prestige in culture than science does. If you attend a Manhattan dinner party and are unfamiliar with some obscure performance artist, they will be horrified - but they won't know anything at all about adaptive radiation. 

A new social psychology paper attempt to change that quantifiability; it says that highbrow literature enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies. Sorry, Fifty Shades of Grey readers, that didn't help you read minds at all.

Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, New School professor of psychology Emanuele Castano, suggest that the reason for literary fiction's impact on Theory of Mind (ToM), the social skill of "mind-reading" to understand others' mental states, is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers. they say, which is sure to make administrators at the New School happy. As they write in their release, "As evidenced by our deathless prose, we at The New School News have always appreciated the edifying value of high-quality literary work."

What's she thinking? If you read something lofty last night, you might know. But if you just read Conan The Barbarian fan-fiction, your Theory of Mind is sorely lacking. Credit: New School.

 They performed five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on students' Theory of Mind (ToM), the social skill of "mind-reading" to understand others' mental states. To choose texts for their study, they chose literary fiction excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction. Popular fiction works were drawn from bestsellers or an anthology of recent popular fiction and non-fiction works were selected from Smithsonian Magazine. 

After students read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM capabilities using several popular social psychology techniques. One of these measures is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor (see Figure 1 below). Another one is the Yoni test, which includes both affective trials and cognitive ones (see Figure 2 below).

"We used several measures of ToM to make sure the effects were not specific to one type of measure, thus accumulating converging evidence for our hypothesis, " the researchers wrote.

Across the five experiments, Kidd and Castano found that students who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM tests than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, who did not differ from one another.

They found that not just any fiction is effective in fostering ToM, rather the literary quality of the fiction is the determining factor. The literary texts used in the experiments had vastly different content and subject matter, but all produced similarly high ToM results.

"Experiment One showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments Two through Five showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction," the paper reports.

"Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers," Kidd and Castano write. "Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.

"We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes." 

Citation: David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano, 'Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind', October 3 2013 Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918