Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why that book changed your life

by: Angela Hickman
The claim that a book can change someone’s life is one that’s made over and over again. Usually, we brush it aside as a cliché, but what if it was actually possible?

The question of the psychology of fiction is one that Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, has been working on for 20 years. He and some colleagues started the website On Fiction in 2008 to track work related to the psychology of fiction.

“The idea was to say, ‘OK, now what really are the psychological effects of reading?’ ” Oatley says. To try and work out an answer, he and Maja Djikic put together a study to measure how personalities can be changed by literature. Participants were given either Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Little Dog” or a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style by Djikic, which included all the same information, was the same length and at the same reading level. Participants did personality tests before and after reading.

“The people who read the Chekhov story, their personalities all changed a bit,” Oatley says.

But what sets literature, and especially narrative fiction, apart from other genres is that everyone’s personality changed a different way.

“With things like persuasion, as in a political message, everybody’s all supposed to think the same way, and they do,” Oatley says. “The reason we’re very excited by this result is that people all changed in their own way. So we were able to measure the amount of change that each individual had and everybody changed in a different way.”

Reading narrative fiction (and potentially narrative non-fiction such as memoirs as well) is like a form of meditation, Oatley says, because it opens you up to emptying your mind of real-life concerns in favour of focusing on a fictional world.

“You go sit somewhere quietly, or you go lie on a couch, or go to bed, you put aside your own concerns and now you take on the concerns of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, or whoever it happens to be. So you then start to experience what life was like from within a different mind.”

That experience, although guided by the story, is entirely individual, Oatley says, which is why it affects everyone differently. This kind of individual response to a book is something most readers have experienced at some point, whether by crying over certain circumstances or applying a character’s lesson to their own life.

That kind of transferal, says Raymond Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University and a former student of Oatley’s, happens because the tools we use to understand fiction and reality aren’t that different.

“There are similar cognitive processes associated with understanding the real world and understanding the fictional world, so when we try to understand what’s going on in a piece of fiction – reading a book and trying to figure out what characters are thinking and feeling – it’s analogous to people trying to figure out how real people are thinking and feeling,” he says, adding that literature can therefore help bolster social interaction and understanding.

“We’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading with respect to language – increasing vocabulary, verbal ability, that sort of thing,” he says. “I think it’s possible that reading could also have important consequences for other realms of our life, like the social realm, our ability to understand other people, our ability to think in abstract terms, imagination, these sorts of things.”

Although these are all positive traits, it stands to reason that just as literature can have a positive effect on personality, it could have a negative one as well. That’s the kind of argument people use when trying to ban books, but Mar says he isn’t worried that this research fuels the censorship fire.

“It’s not the case that books can have such powerful, unilateral changes in attitude,” he says. “So, it’s not the case that if you have a certain belief and then you read a book against your will, your belief will change. That’s not the way that literature works; it’s not a direct injection of ideas or propaganda. Literature tends to open up your mind to potentials.”

Having an open mind is essential for personality change, Mar says. But even the most open of minds probably won’t be completely altered by just one experience with fiction.

“The effects can be moderate even if they are real,” he says. Nonetheless, he adds, “What you’re reading definitely matters.”

• For more information on the psychology of fiction, visit

from: National Post

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