Need another good reason to read stories to your children at night? Recent research by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, shows evidence that both our social skills and our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others is enhanced through exposure to fiction. His studies suggests that when a child is exposed to stories about children in different situations, the child is “practicing” social interactions by imaginatively putting himself in the situations described in the story, experiencing the conflicts and dilemmas that the fictional child faces.
Mar has used fMRI studies to show that the brain networks that become active when children listen to or read stories are the same networks used when we interact with others in real life, particularly when we are trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. In other words, reading stories to our children helps them practice the complex skills involved in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others – known as theory-of-mind – the ability to understand that others have different thoughts and feelings than oneself.
In this time when increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and many other children have poor social skills, regularly exposing children to stories from a young age, first reading the stories aloud and discussing them with your child, and later encouraging your child to read stories to himself every day is an activity with a double bonus – improved reading and social skills.
If you’d like to learn more about this research and its fascinating implications, consider reading:
Mar, R.A., Djikic, M. & Oatley, K. (2008). Effects of reading on knowledge, social-abilities, and self-hood. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova, & J. Auracher (Eds.). Directions in empirical studies in literature: In honor of Willie van Peer. (pp. 127-137). Amsterdam: Benjamins.