Reading a good book is not only a pleasure, but something good for health . Observational studies carried out for more than 10 years, carried out on people close to the elderly, have shown that the mortality of regular readers is reduced by 20%, something probably related to the protective effect of reading on cognitive abilities, as well as in psychological balance.

Writing and reading are among the great achievements of homo sapiens and have contributed to his ability to communicate and transmit knowledge. "The narrative capacity, the creation of stories, is much older than the invention of writing," says Emanuele Castano, from the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Trento, author of several investigations in this area.

"Evolutionary psychology considers the stories told by our ancestors around fire as an activity that has allowed the evolution of the human mind. In a certain sense, it is precisely the stories that made us human , since they convey important meanings and information for social life ”.

"Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner considered storytelling as the way we make sense of our experience," continues Castano. «Our research is part of this line and sheds light on the effects that the narrative has on cognitive processes: on how we think and not only on what we think. We did a study published in the journal Science that shows how different types of stories influence the way we think. For example, more literary novels increase our ability to better understand others , what in the cognitive sciences we call theory of mind. In contrast, genre or more popular novels do not seem to stimulate this capacity, without which every daily interaction, such as social relationships, would fall into chaos. Most of the research in this area is in developmental psychology and psychopathology. ”

Castano has already collaborated with some California schools to understand whether reading novels can facilitate the development of theory of mind, and is now developing a similar intervention research in Italy, which will explore whether reading narrative can be helpful in treating autism .

“Improving the theory of mind is, in any case, desirable even in adults without pathologies. It helps us better understand others, it facilitates empathy and pro-social behavior . Obviously, being able to read the minds of others also helps us in competition. People with strong mental theory skills perform better in financial operations. Some research I am completing also shows that the theory of mind is at the base of strategic thinking and Machiavellian intelligence , that is, the ability to manipulate the behavior of other people for their own benefit.

Literature helps, genre novels don't

Castano's work indicates the existence of a difference in the effect of two types of novel. The genre novel, which tends to focus on the plot and uses more one-dimensional and stereotypical characters; and the literary one, which emphasizes the inner life of the characters, more complex, opaque, somewhat unpredictable and even more realistic.

«The literary novel uses in a more systematic way a language that forces the reader to take reflective pauses through stylistic variations at the phonetic level, such as alliterations and rhymes, omissions of syntactic elements, which the reader must guess, and makes use of semantic structures like the metaphor, "says Castano.

"While the genre novel reassures us in our expectations and prejudices," he continues, "the literary, like other forms of art, plays with uncertainty and ambiguity, contrasts the feeling of familiarity with the characters and forces us to consider different points of view and possibilities. In our latest research, in collaboration with the Italian philosopher Pietro Perconti, we concluded that these characteristics also influence the complexity of thinking and cognitive styles. People who regularly read literary novels are more likely to recognize the complexity of human behavior and social dynamics , while those who prefer genre novels show the opposite trend. But it is not so much a question of establishing a hierarchy between the types of novels ”, clarifies the scholar.

"From a mental health standpoint, literary novels, by questioning beliefs, patterns, and certainties, can increase our existential anxiety," he continues. Genre novels, on the other hand, are reassuring. However, for those who want a model of society based on the principles of free democracy, an exclusive diet of popular novels can be lethal . The great social problems and the democratic processes are not simple and clear problems. Therefore, a certain degree of complexity of analysis, skepticism and an open mind to consider diverse opinions are values ​​that must be nurtured and supported. Our research suggests that these values ​​are stimulated when reading literary novels. Obviously, other cultural products, other experiences and, of course, the educational system also play a fundamental role in this regard. Some of the sociocognitive mechanisms stimulated by fiction are probably present in other cultural products and other experiences, "he concludes.

The mental gymnastics necessary to appreciate poetry

The neurobiology and poetry seem to be two separate universes for millions of kilometers, but if there was not a single brain can not produce it , but also to enjoy it , poetry would not exist.

"Poetry is the most challenging type of fiction, capable of revealing new levels of meaning with each reading and rereading," say German psychologists Arthur Jacobs and Roel Willems in an article published in the Review of General Psychology , "and there is a new interest in neuroscience towards the study of the ways in which poetry is produced and received ». His work indicates that to understand poetry and fully experience its meaning, the reader must know how to perform specific and somewhat articulated mental gymnastics , which involves the simultaneous activation of different areas of the brain.

For example, the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex must be activated, but also the temporoparietal junction, which allows enriching the reading with resonances from memory itself, or the inferior frontal gyrus, which participates in the separation of very similar representations, such as in the perception of metaphors .

The studies carried out on the reception of poetry were carried out with neuroimaging techniques through which comparisons were made between reading poetry and reading pieces in prose. "The aim of these studies was to discover the neural basis of literary consciousness, " say the two German psychologists. "That is, the ability to consider, manipulate and understand the meaning of complex texts, which involve a process of flexible model building, in order to be able to adjust to threads of changing meaning, to sensitivity to subtle differences in meaning, as well as greater social reasoning skills, probably based on empathy ».

Reading aloud to children improves their development

When we read fiction we immerse ourselves in other worlds that are often very different from ours, we also travel to the past or even to the future, and all this forces us to imagine alternative realities to those known, but above all we interact with other individuals and with a wide variety of alternative social roles to real ones.

"All this is a process of simulation and counterfactual imagination that allows us to have social and relationship experiences almost as if they were real," explains Emanuele Castano. “When we read stories to our children with witches who eat children and with terrifying monsters, we allow them to experience strong emotions and, therefore, to learn. A learning whose only risk is having to make room for them in bed if they are afraid that night ... In the first years of life, even when children already know how to read, it is important to read with them, so that they learn to handle the attention, commenting on the situations experienced by the characters, stimulating their ability to anticipate situations and consequences ».

The benefits of reading aloud to children are the subject of various investigations, including in the psychological field. This is the case of the researchers from the University of Perugia Federico Batini and Marco Bartolucci, who study the teachers' ways of reading in various schools. Her work indicates that reading aloud helps children improve some important developmental processes , such as learning to understand their own and others' emotions, expanding their language, and strengthening basic cognitive skills, such as attention, planning, and verbal intelligence.

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