Art Makes You a Better Person (Maybe)

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Alright, specifically, reading certain types of fiction can temporarily increase your empathy, according to a study published earlier this month in the research journal Science.

The study looked at how respondents handled a series of tests after reading literary fiction (with non-readers standing in for the control group) to determine any improvements to their Theory of Mind. The study, conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, found that the group which read literary fiction expressed higher scores in this category which broadly defines “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.”

Slate‘s Mark O’Connell is ambivalent. To put a fine point on it, O’Connell worries that the line of reasoning which flows from these results is that if literature has the capacity to make you a better person, would we then, in our consideration of art, require that the best art “improve” us as human beings?

“[P]erhaps reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. (Though what about your hardline literary misanthropes, by the way—your Bernhards, your Houellebecqs, your Célines? Do we gain anything in moral aptitude by reading these dreadful old bastards, and, if we don’t, is doing so somehow less worthy of our time?)”

My own curiosity is piqued about the corollary — about the power of art to reduce empathy and understanding or to make us “worse.” Violent, so-called exploitative, and “trash” movies, games, comics, and yes, literature have their own place and their own value. But what do they do to our Theory of Mind? Continuing along O’Connell’s line of logic, can we not hold up McCarthy’s wildly misanthropic “Blood Meridian” alongside the relatively optimistic/humanistic worldview found in Steinbeck? If a study were to find that the former somehow diminishes one’s Theory of Mind, would it diminish the work itself?

The takeaway here is a rudimentary one for any artist — worry less about what people will say about your work and instead try to make something that people are compelled to say something about.

[Header image: “Empathy” by Theraneand

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