Does Diverse Reading Benefit Your Brain?

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You’re probably familiar with the ethical arguments favouring diverse reading. Celebrating marginalised stories is part of what Inspired Quill is about. You might not be aware, however, that reading diverse makes sense from a self-care perspective.

I’m here to tell you that it might just benefit your brain.

The Link Between Reading, Empathy And Social Cohesion

Perhaps you’ve come across the report from the Reading Agency suggesting that reading for pleasure enhances empathy and social cohesion? Recent evidence from social psychology – summarised in an extremely accessible paperback, The Social Brain, by Richard Crisp – supports those findings and, at least as I read it, provides some pointers as to why that might be so.

The versions of social psychology that have crept into the public consciousness present a particularly pessimistic view of human nature. Asch found people lacked the courage of their convictions even when they were right, research participants being perfectly willing to give a clearly incorrect answer to a simple question if others had done the same. Tajfel and his team found that people consistently rewarded members of their own group more than another, even when those groups were arbitrarily constructed and the allocation of points was carried out anonymously. In perhaps the most famous psychological research programme ever, Milgram and his associates found that people were willing to deliver painful electric shocks to another citizen if instructed to do so by a powerful authority figure.

On the strength of this, we’d be forgiven for believing that humankind is inherently prone to hostility towards the outgroup; some would argue that our survival as a species stems from our ability to speedily differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’. But Richard Crisp stresses that are we programmed to cooperate too. Furthermore, he asserts that diversity lies at the root of our intellectual evolution and is an essential ingredient of creativity, innovation and growth.

A young boy in a green coat supporting an old tree with an outstretched arm
Humans have a marvellous capacity to support, learn and grow.

Addressing Diversity and ‘The Other’

Let’s home in on a couple of ways he’s addressed that. Firstly, those us/them demarcations aren’t always clear-cut. All of us have to manage conflicting allegiances at some time or other; perhaps bilingual and bicultural people more than most.

And guess what?

Research has shown them to be more flexible and creative in their thinking. This tallies with the evidence (stemming from clinical observation and theory rather than experiment) from a very different kind of psychology: object relations theory which claims that the mature, adaptive state of mind is one in which we are able to tolerate ambivalence.

The strand of Crisp’s thesis most pertinent to reading is concerned with a process known as prospection, the ability to imagine scenarios different to how they currently are. Isn’t that what we do when we immerse ourselves in a fictional world?

While over 500 studies based on Allport’s contact hypothesis show that prejudice disappears when we associate with members of an outgroup on equal terms, Crisp himself has demonstrated that imagined positive contact has a similar effect. In his research, imagined contact has improved attitudes, increased the intention to engage with outgroup members, increased confidence in intercultural communication ability and reduced non-verbal markers of anxiety. Furthermore, the more elaborate and vivid the imagined contact, the stronger the effect.

Increasing Interculturality Through Diversity

It would be stretching the evidence too far to suggest that entering the mindset of fictional characters different to ourselves will make everyone as flexible in our thinking as bilingual and bicultural people. But it must benefit our brains to exercise that muscle, perhaps as a step towards increased intercultural contact in our everyday lives.

So let’s do ourselves and society a favour and seek out diversity in our reading. I can’t imagine a more entertaining route to mental well-being.

Richard Crisp, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind (Robinson: London, 2015). 978-1-47212-023-6, 171pp., paperback.

Picture of literary author Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin

A former clinical psychologist, Anne Goodwin has published three books with Inspired Quill, the most recent being a collection of short stories on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. Find out more on her website annethology or on her IQ author page.

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