Reading between the lines: books and emotional intelligence

Elliot Simmonds

Elliot Simmonds is the Panel Manager at VoicED, an online research community. He has presented at a Russell Group university on the value of a Humanities degree in the business world, as well as acting as a mentor for business students at the University of Manchester in recent years. Elliot also brings experience of other education systems, having attended the University of Massachusetts. In 2014 he judged the Education category of the UK Blog Awards.

Elliot also offers marketing consulting services through Rippleout Marketing, and is happy to speak to schools and other educational establishments.

Education professionals can visit the VoicED member site, whilst research buyers within the education sector will find the client portal interesting.

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House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective… For adults, there are a huge amount of must-see television programmes available at the moment, and it’s getting much easier to miss giving yourself some time to read. For younger viewers, the same problem applies, with a bevy of kids-programming channels (not to mention Netflix) easily accessible. Recent research has shown that reading is on the decline, and Elliot Simmonds can’t stress enough how important reading is for growing minds.

Last week, new research was published by Booktrust (and later featured by the Guardian and the BBC among others) which suggests that Britain is a nation divided on reading habits. At this point, in the interest of full-disclosure, I should say that I am a voracious reader. I read anything, and I read a lot – despite recently being asked if I was a ’14 year old girl’ because I’m halfway through The Hunger Games.

For this reason, I found it quite distressing that almost half the nation would prefer to watch television than read a book and that even more (56%) said that the internet and computers will replace books within two decades. Reading is exercise for the brain; utilising memory, imagination and generally increasing vocabulary and improving the way in which people express themselves. Reading books is a great way to step away from work and school, which involves an increasing amount of time spent looking at screens for many of us.

More scientifically, reading shows important links to two of the key forms of intelligence through which we navigate the world around us – specifically, emotional intelligence and crystallised intelligence.

In short, crystallised intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience – it is your ability to utilise the ‘general knowledge’, so to speak, that you pick up moving through life, and a loose measure of this is often your vocabulary (which is why a number of IQ tests utilise word associations for instance). The value of reading here is immediately obvious – books contain information (names, facts, attributes, beliefs) that can be used in the wider world. Reading books is a way of continuously adding to the bank of knowledge that we have in our brains – even if it is just expanding one’s vocabulary through learning new words.

Whilst this is interesting, other research has also hinted at another benefit of reading which may have a far more wide reaching impact.

To return briefly to the research mentioned above, one of the key take-home points made at the ‘Reading Changes Lives’ conference, where the findings were unveiled, was that reading could affect social mobility in the UK. In an article published by The Independent on March 14th, Viv Bird, Booktrust’s Chief Executive, declared that ‘the gift of reading, in whatever form, is one of the most transformative presents imaginable.’ Now, the main body of this research made a link between those who read being, generally, more affluent and more content with life – with a caveat that further research would need to be conducted to establish the exact causation behind those links. In short, it is possible that there is a link between reading at a young age and ‘success’ in life.

Still, research published in the United States last year hints at even larger potential implications for society.

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, both psychologists at the New School for Social Research (New York) published an article in the journal Science which suggested reading fiction may improve people’s emotional intelligence. They carried out five experiments to measure the impact that reading literary and popular fiction, as well as non-fiction, has on participants’ ability to understand others’ mental states, utilising a number of well-established tests within the field of ‘Theory of Mind’ research.

In basic terms, the pair found that those participants asked to read literary fiction (for them, Anton Chekov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht) performed far better in the theory of mind tests than those reading popular fiction or non-fiction. They argued that this was because literary fiction requires an increased level of intellectual engagement and creative thought due to the presence of incomplete characters within the genre, which the reader must fill in with their mind – thus creating a sort of fictional empathy. This experience primes the reader to be able to perform the same mental tasks in the real world, and thus they are better able to understand the feelings of others.

So What’s The Point?

Given the effect that reading some forms of literature appears to have on emotional intelligence, and taking into account the fact that the world is becoming increasingly global – with numerous different groups moving across borders and regions, and into the UK specifically – encouraging children to read and develop these skills at an early age could be a potentially important method for improving integration and cohesion.

To put this into perspective, Department for Education figures recently published by The Telegraph, suggest that in more than one in every nine schools across England, English is a second language for the majority of pupils. Whilst this is certainly not a bad thing, it does mean that there are likely to be a number of differing cultural aspects at play within a lot of schools – and encouraging children to empathise, understand and accept any cultural differences should increase the chance of a more tolerant society as they grow up. If reading can help in this, then it seems to me that schools, as well as parents and guardians (actually, anyone, to be honest) should be encouraging children to read.

This is, of course, in addition to the fact that without reading – without providing children with a means to stretch their imagination – we will be without the next generation of top quality storytellers; and then there will be nothing good on TV anyway.

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