There is a piece in the Dec. 9 Chronicle (“Why Fiction Does It Better”) that argues that fiction develops readers’ capacity for “sociocognitive complexity”:
Cognitive scientists and literary theorists have plenty to say on this subject. Cognitive science connects the acquisition of vocabulary to social cognition, or the development of theory of mind—a capacity to attribute mental states, including thoughts, beliefs, and desires, to oneself and other people.
For those of us around the university who aim to prepare our students to bring to their various post-University roles — citizens, parents, professionals/workers, bosses — such useful attributes as compassion, tolerance, empathy, and the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, it is encouraging to see a positive correlation between these capacities and a universally available activity.
The author’s challenge is to get more fiction into school curriculums and to do so earlier, not later, in the moral development of students. And in universities, where an emphasis on STEM education has the potential to crowd out courses built around novels, drama, and narrative poetry, the curricular challenge is no less severe.
When a few of my first-year law students asked what they might read over the holiday break, I didn’t hesitate to suggest a handful of novels that I thought would entertain and provide a welcome break from the past four months of reading cases and statutes. Little did I know I was also adding to the development of their capacity for sociocognitive complexity!