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Start mentalising to get an edge

columns Updated: Jul 06, 2013 23:24 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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I’m in absolute awe of people who don’t read fiction. And, of late, I’ve been running into more than a few who boast they don’t. It’s never said as an apology. They are proud that they stick to hard facts and not unproductive flights of fancy.

They are almost always high-achievers, with heads crammed with useful information and thinly-veiled contempt for people who read stuff that distracts them from the practical pursuits of acing exams or scampering up the career ladder.

Research now shows that fiction-shunners are missing out in real life. Reading fiction — even short stories — boosts your ability to get into other people’s heads by increasing empathy and the ability to “mentalise”, which helps you put aside what you know or believe in to take on an alternative world view. It improves decision-making and helps you better cope with uncertainty. It boosts social intelligence by helping you predict other people’s actions, spot deceit and even lie convincingly, all of which are skills needed in the real world.

This ability to understand what another person is feeling or going through is higher among frequent readers of fiction, report two studies from the University of Toronto in Canada. The benefits are immediate, with one study reporting that reading a short story boosted empathy and social skills of even those closed to experience and ideas.

The second study, done by the same group, found that reading fiction also lowers a person’s discomfort with ambiguity, along with the need for order, perhaps because fictional chaos doesn’t directly affect us and is easier to accept. This has a cathartic affect on our personality and helps us cope with problems in real life.

Empathy is what also makes us human as was shown using brain imaging technology. Psychopaths —defined as self-centred, remorseless people who harm others without thought or guilt — can’t show empathy toward anyone because their brains aren’t wired to do so, reported researchers from the University of Chicago in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in April this year. This, I guess, makes psychopaths the one subset unaffected by fiction, good or bad, but then they are not effected by anything other than self-interest.

Researchers from the University of Chicago used MRI scans of the brain and found that psychopaths have less activation in certain parts of the brain called the insula, which monitors

Emotional and physical states and controls empathising with others. Dysfunction in this region makes people oblivious or callous to other people’s pain or distress.

Apart from winning you friends, empathy increases productivity at work by increasing understanding, communication and relationships needed to develop solutions and diffuse conflict.

And if your workplace happens to be a hospital or clinic, it saves lives. Patients who had empathetic physicians had better controlled diabetes with fewer complications, found a study on ‘The relationship between physician empathy and disease complications’ in northern Italy.

The study, published in Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, included 20,961 people with type-1 or type-2 diabetes from a population of 284,298 adult patients registered with the Local Health Authority, Parma, enrolled with one of 242 primary-care physicians and found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores had a much few complications. They also needed to be hospitalised less frequently.

It’s not easy to take time out for either reading fiction or getting inside other people’s heads, but perhaps you did, if only to discover yourself. Most people — even those who think of themselves as “super sensitive” — are great at being self-aware about what they need but when it comes to other people’s states of mind, they are as clueless as the unfriendly neighbourhood psychopath.

Mentalising helps you get out of your own heads and into other people’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and beliefs, which make you socially and emotionally adept at dealing with people and situations. It can win you friends and promotions. If not, you can sleep better knowing you’re not a psychopath.