Your Business Mind on Fiction: The Theory of Mind and the Benefits of Good Fiction

Reading Time: 3 Minutes Beyond

Thought leadership is about having a refined approach to scanning the landscape for new ideas, inspirations, and thoughts that flex the mind’s capacity to think and create. One of the most dramatic methods of flexing that thought muscle is through fiction, which offers immense cognitive benefits, including increased imagination, creativity, a widening perception of the world, and an improved ability of reading the thoughts and feelings of others. These skills are so imperative to a successful business leader, and so effortless to achieve, that it’s a wonder why it wasn’t discussed before as a means of priming ourselves and our staff for leadership.

Imagination is the Best Brain Booster – Perhaps the most clear-cut benefit of great fiction is exposure to the realm of imagination where the mind is introduced to new ways of thinking. A blog post at The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay, titled “Why Men Should Read More Fiction,” notes how “fiction not only activates, but also improves the cognitive functions that allow us to thrive socially.” The only other comparable brain booster is exercise, which is proven to boost neural activity and increase cognition.

Fiction as a Doorway to Creativity – But reading fiction has an added benefit that exercise alone can’t offer – and that’s increasing creativity. This is done in a couple of ways as outlined in the McKay post. The first is through play. Cognitive scientists believe fiction originates in play, and reading make-believe is simply another sort of play. And “just as an open-ended play develops a child’s ability to conceive and evaluate alternatives, a well-written piece of fiction does the same for grown-ups.” In a real world business application, the value we find in fiction is best summarized by the post’s reference to literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who believes the purpose of fiction is to “make the familiar strange so that we look at things in a new light.” He adds that through comparisons between fiction and non-fiction, we can “begin to think about ideas in a profoundly different way.”

Raise Emotional IQ and Refine “People Skills” – Dr. Keith Oatley, in his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, argues that fiction helps us better understand our social world. He adds that “just as your understanding of history and finance is improved by reading lots of books on those subjects, reading fiction improves your understanding of social relationships – your thinking about what other people are thinking.” Touching on the idea of relationships, Brett and Kate McKay also point out how reading fiction strengthens your theory of mind. According to them, “studies show that when we read fiction, the parts of our brain responsible for theory of mind light up and are heavily engaged.”

Professor Robert Seyfarth describes the theory as a process where we attributed mental states to other people. It’s an ability children lack until they’re six years old; prior to that, they’re unable to understand the thoughts, desires, and knowledge of others. They exist predominantly in a state of self, with self-knowledge and only self-awareness. By age 6, they develop the theory of the mind, “called a theory because there’s nothing about the other person that show’s they’re thinking. Thoughts are hidden…and the only way we know they’re there is if we have a theory.” Professor Seyfarth continues, adding how the theory of mind pervades human life. He says, “We’re forever making a distinction between what people do and what we think they do. These things can get incredibly baroque and done in daily life all the time, but it’s not something we’re born with. You’ve got to learn it.”

Brett and Kate McKay recognize how fiction requires us to “guess at hidden motives of characters, figure out what their enemies or lovers may or may not be thinking…as well as keep track of all the social interactions between characters.” All traits required in the emotional intelligent business leader.

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