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What Can We Learn From Fiction?

A project to examine the cognitive effects produced by works of fiction and to identify the underlying mechanisms

Learning from fiction

What can we learn from reading works of fiction? Philosophers, psychologists, literary critics and humanities scholars have made broad claims for the positive impact of reading fiction: it gives us important insights into human psychology; it confers cognitive advantages; it enhances moral understanding and empathy; it is a valuable source of truth; and it makes us better people. 

However, these claims have also been contested, with sceptics wary of overstating the educational benefits of reading fiction, or even warning of its potentially detrimental effects. 

Positive and optimistic appraisals of fiction's cognitive value are not universal and debates have paid little attention to empirical evidence. Now, however, a number of psychological studies have begun to investigate learning from fiction, with mixed results. 

What we’re researching:

Our research project combines philosophical and empirical approaches to the question ‘What do we learn from fiction?’ This focus is where research in the humanities and in the empirical sciences intersects. We are sympathetic to the idea that readers learn from fiction, but much more needs to be done to establish this claim, to delineate the cognitive effects produced by different works and identify the mechanisms that produce them. 

We will be investigating questions amenable to empirical study, but dependent for their interpretation on philosophical analysis and argument. To consider what and how we learn from fiction, we are using state-of-the-art experimental approaches in psychology and interpretive methods in philosophy. 

Questions we consider include: Does reading fiction improve our empathy with others in morally positive ways? Does it give us psychological insight, or is it apt to generate false attributions? Does fiction enhance our understanding of the world, or instil false or irrational views? And does it exercise our imaginations in cognitively beneficial ways?

“Results will be used to generate a new account of learning from fiction, one that is better grounded and more nuanced than those currently available. ”

What will the impact be?

"By having philosophical input into experimental design, while manipulating variables to distinguish positive from negative changes, having participants complete repeat sessions and using a variety of new measures, we will significantly improve on existing studies. The results will be used to generate a new account of learning from fiction, one that is better grounded and more nuanced than those currently available," states Dr Stacie Friend, Department of Philosophy.

"The project members will collaborate on a variety of articles in both philosophy and psychology journals, as well as disseminating the results and interpretations at national and international conferences."

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