Reading good literature may help you socially, psychologists suggest

Think of it as the bookworm’s bonus: People who read first-rate fiction become more socially literate, at least briefly, a new study suggests.

Researchers randomly assigned nearly 700 volunteers to read excerpts of “literary” novels by recent National Book Award finalists and other celebrated authors, to read parts of fiction bestsellers, including one by Danielle Steel, or popular nonfiction books, or to not read anything. Those who read literary works then scored highest on several tests of the ability to decipher others’ motives and emotions, say David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York.

One test asked participants to describe the thoughts or feelings of one or two individuals shown surrounded by various items in a series of images, based on written and visual clues. In another test, participants tried to match emotion words to facial expressions shown for two seconds on a computer screen.

By prompting readers to ponder characters’ motives and emotions rather than just a fast-moving plot, literary fiction recruits mind-reading skills used in daily encounters, Kidd and Castano propose in the journal Science. The researchers don’t know whether regularly reading literary fiction yields mind-reading upgrades that would last.

Researchers find that people who read literary fiction see a boost in emotional intelligence, at least briefly. (iStockphoto)

Science News

Scientists find threat to the seas

The world’s oceans are under greater threat than previously believed from a “deadly trio” of global warming, declining oxygen levels and acidification, an international study said last week. The oceans have continued to warm, pushing many commercial fish stocks toward the poles and raising the risk of extinction for some marine species, despite a slower pace of temperature rises in the atmosphere this century, it said.

“Risks to the ocean and the ecosystems it supports have been significantly underestimated,” according to the International Program on the State of the Ocean, a nongovernmental group of leading scientists.

The oceans are warming because of heat from a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Fertilizers and sewage that wash into the oceans can cause blooms of algae that reduce oxygen levels in the waters. And carbon dioxide in the air can form a weak acid when it reacts with sea water.

“The ‘deadly trio’ of . . . acidification, warming and deoxygenation is seriously affecting how productive and efficient the ocean is,” the study said.

— Reuters