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Reading literary fiction doesn't boost social cognition
by Brooks Hays
Philadelphia (UPI) Oct 4, 2016


Scientists solve mystery of the lone wolf wave
Buffalo, N.Y. (UPI) Oct 4, 2016 - Solitary waves or solitons, sometimes called lone wolf waves, are just what they sound like. Unlike normal waves, these nonlinear waves persist without dissipating -- maintaining their shape, speed and energy even after colliding with other waves.

A new mathematical solution, developed by scientists at the University of Buffalo, predicts the phenomenon more accurately than ever before.

In the 1960s, physicists Norman Zabusky and Martin Kruskal developed a formula -- the Korteweg-de Vries equation -- to describe the action of solitons. They also came up with a solution to approximate the waves' formation. But solving their mathematical equation required sophisticated computer-based calculations, limiting scientists' ability to study the finer details of the enigmatic waves.

In a new study published in the journal Physical Review Letters, Buffalo researchers detailed a simpler solution to the Korteweg-de Vries equation.

"Zabusky and Kruskal's famous work from the 1960s gave rise to the field of soliton theory," Gino Biondini, a professor of mathematics at Buffalo, explained in a news release. "But until now, we lacked a simple explanation for what they described. Our method gives you a full description of the solution that they observed, which means we can finally gain a better understanding of what's happening."

Unlike the previous solution, which failed to predict the types of waves scientists witnessed in nature, the latest solution allows scientists to predict the appearance of solitons given a set of environmental parameters.

Researchers in Italy and Japan used the work of Biondini and his colleague Guo Deng, a PhD candidate in physics, to build a water wave generator capable of producing lone wolf waves. The model was able to produce waves matching the predictions of Biondini and Deng.

The model also revealed a related phenomenon called recurrence, whereby a soliton splits into several soliton before recombining once more into a single solitary wave.

"This is akin to placing a bunch of children in a room to play, then returning later to find that the room has been returned to its initial, tidy state after a period of messiness," explained Miguel Onorato, a physicist at the University of Turin.

Literary fiction fans were quick to embrace news that the novels on their shelves bestowed a heightened social intelligence. The supposed link was uncovered by scientists at the New School in New York. Stories about the study were widely shared on social media platforms.

New research, however, suggests the excitement was all for naught. When social scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Pace University, Boston College and the University of Oklahoma tried to replicate the findings of the original study, they failed to replicate the results. The conclusions of the original study simply don't stand up to scrutiny.

"Reading a short piece of literary fiction does not seem to boost theory of mind," Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn's psychology department, explained in a news release. "Literary fiction did not do any better than popular fiction, expository non-fiction and not any better than reading nothing at all."

Of course, there are a variety of perfectly valid reasons to read literary fiction. But the latest findings -- detailed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology -- suggests readers shouldn't do so with the expectation of an improved ability to recognize the mental states of others.

Lead researchers Weisberg and Pace's Thalia Goldstein used the reading materials from the original study -- conducted at the New School for Social Research -- and administered the same theory of mind test, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, or RMET.

Weisberg and Goldstein say they don't fault psychologists for looking for a way to engage people's social intelligence, but believe scientists have a duty to always double check their conclusions.

"There's been a lot of attention to high-profile studies that show something of social importance," Weisberg said. "It would be amazing if we could put into place interventions on the basis of this study, but we really need to double check and not just rely on one lab, one study, before we go shouting from the rooftops."

The researchers did perform a separate test to see if long-term exposure to fiction was related to a high social IQ. Participants were given a list of authors, some real and some fake, and asked to verify those names which they know for certain belonged to real, live authors. Participants were penalized for selecting fake names.

Those who named the most correct authors tended to score higher on RMET, the theory of mind test. Still, the correlation doesn't prove causation.

"One brief exposure to fiction won't have an effect, but perhaps a protracted engagement with fictional stories such that you boost your skills, perhaps that could," Weisberg said. "It's also possible the causality is the other way around: It could be people who are already good at theory of mind read a lot. They like engaging in stories with people."


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