Reading benefits intelligence and relationships

One would hope all of the reading one does in college actually improves intelligence, or at least contributes to some higher thought function. But does reading have any sort of impact on the mind? And if so, does this impact matter?

Some have questioned the idea of chewing on words as a way toward greater intelligence. The University of Edinburgh and King’s College London published a study in July concluding that, yes, reading does produce greater intelligence, particularly in early childhood.

According to the study, “Tests carried out on identical twins suggest that if children have better-than-average reading skills from age seven, this may positively affect their intellectual abilities in late adolescence.”

Scientists from Edinburgh and London studied identical twins in order to rule out genetic factors associated with intelligence. Identical twins share the same genes, and this allows scientists to identify environmental contributors to intelligence.

“These might include a particularly effective teacher or a group of friends that encouraged reading.”

Dr. Stuart Ritchie, of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at Edinburgh, said of the study, “Since reading is an ability that can be improved, our findings have implications for reading instruction. Early remediation of reading problems might aid not only the growth of literacy but also more general cognitive abilities that are of critical importance across a person’s lifetime.”

Reading’s benefits are not limited to early childhood or adolescence. A recent study from the New School for Social Research in New York suggests that reading literary fiction, as opposed to “best-selling thrillers or romances,” may improve an individual’s Theory of Mind (ToM).

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, the two psychologists conducting the study, say ToM “allows successful navigation of complex social relationships and helps to support the empathic responses that maintain them.”

They add, “Researchers have distinguished between affective ToM (the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions) and cognitive ToM (the inference and representation of others’ beliefs and intentions). The effective component of ToM, in particular, is linked to empathy (positively) and antisocial behavior (negatively).”

In short, if an individual possessed an advanced ToM, that individual would be able to comprehend another individual’s emotional state and be able to accurately represent another person’s beliefs and intentions. A good Theory of Mind, then, would allow for successful relationships with others.

The study tested the effects of reading literary fiction on ToM and compared these results to the effects of reading “non-fiction, popular fiction or nothing at all.”

In order to establish a solid basis for judging just exactly how literary a book really is, Kidd and Castano used texts that had won the National Book Award.

The psychologists concluded, “Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.”

According to these studies, good reading skills at an early age contribute to late-adolescent intelligence. Furthermore, reading literary fiction later may contribute to a greater ability to navigate social relationships and cultivate a sense of empathy for other people.