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WIREs Cogn Sci
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The cognitive science of fiction

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Fiction might be dismissed as observations that lack reliability and validity, but this would be a misunderstanding. Works of fiction are simulations that run on minds. They were the first kinds of simulation. All art has a metaphorical quality: a painting can be both pigments on canvas and a person. In literary art, this quality extends to readers who can be both themselves and, by empathetic processes within a simulation, also literary characters. On the basis of this hypothesis, it was found that the more fiction people read the better were their skills of empathy and theory‐of‐mind; the inference from several studies is that reading fiction improves social skills. In functional magnetic resonance imaging meta‐analyses, brain areas concerned with understanding narrative stories were found to overlap with those concerned with theory‐of‐mind. In an orthogonal effect, reading artistic literature was found to enable people to change their personality by small increments, not by a writer's persuasion, but in their own way. This effect was due to artistic merit of a text, irrespective of whether it was fiction or non‐fiction. An empirically based conception of literary art might be carefully constructed verbal material that enables self‐directed personal change. WIREs Cogn Sci 2012, 3:425–430. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1185

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