Almost everyday I start my day by reading/skimming through daily news. A few days ago, as I was practicing my “habit”, one headline in the NPR website, caught my attention: Want to Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction. (You can read the article here.)
In the NPR article the emphasis was on the effect of reading literary fiction on someone’s capacity for empathy. Empathy being considered as an important social skill. First I was very interested in what the article would say, but then I became kind of disappointed since the article was not substantial enough for me and my final reaction was “duhh”!
When we read a novel or a short story, we tend to identify with the protagonist. We put ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes and feel the pain, joy, disappointment, sorrow, triumph etc. That is what makes reading fiction so exciting and fun in the first place. The researchers mentioned in the NPR article implies that this is basically an “exercise in mind-reading and mind construction”. This was precisely what gave me the courage to talk about mentalization in relation to reading literary fiction.
Mentalization is a new term in the field of psychology. It is not yet in a regular dictionary. What it means is simply thinking about our thinking and other people’s thinking. When we think about what we think and feel in a given moment, we interpret the whole process of thinking-feeling-behaving and see the connections between them. Therefore, mentalization is the basis of emotional regulation and self-control. In impulsive individuals, be it a child or an adult, there is no thinking between impulse and action, which can impair interpersonal relationship. Another important aspect of mentalization is to recognize the fact that other people have their own mind and they might think differently than how we think.
When reading stories or fictions to children, a simple exercise to help them develop their capacity for mentalization could be to stop and ask them what they think the characters in the story might have in mind; what they think will happen next; and why they think so. That way we are actively engaging them in the process of thinking about other people’s thinking, while at the same time encouraging them to form their own mind.
One distinction that needs to be noted here is that mentalization is not about cognitive skills. It is about understanding our mental state in a given moment and increasing self-awareness as well as awareness about others. These are the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, which is the main ingredient of a successful and happy life. Therefore, when reading a literary fiction, intentionally thinking about characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions gives us the opportunity to understand human behavior in general while providing clues to us about how to approach others in daily life.