There’s a premium placed these days on the idea of “critical thinking.” For years this has been a buzz term in higher education. It’s not just higher education either. Employers across sectors are frequently looking for folks who can think critically. One could argue this skill is also vital in everyday life in order to foster an engaged and informed citizenry, which seems particularly urgent these days. While most agree that the ability to think critically is important, there’s far less consensus on what that actually means, and moreover, how to achieve it.
When we look in the US and abroad, we can see that educators are approaching this task in numerous ways. For example, problem or phenomenon-based learning is on the rise and has become an integral part of education in some places, such as Finland. While this is too brief a description, in essence, problem or phenomenon-based learning assumes that real-world phenomena are transdisciplinary by nature and thus rarely fit neatly into disciplinary borders. Therefore, they need to be studied through multiple lenses.
Another way some researchers are trying to encourage critical thinking is through the arts. Arts-based research has grown enormously over the past two decades as an approach to research in which the arts are adapted in scientific or social scientific research projects (please see my book Method Meets Art or Handbook of Arts-Based Research if you’re interested in this topic). One such approach is fiction, which I’ve been immersed in for the last decade. I’m a sociologist turned novelist. I’ve published several novels grounded in my research. These experiences have shown me the power of fiction to reach diverse audiences, engage people on deep levels, create lasting impressions, challenge commonly held assumptions, and prompt self and social reflection. In other words, I’ve seen firsthand how fiction promotes critical thinking.
When I wrote my first novel, Low-Fat Love, loosely based on nearly a decade of interview research, it was really just an experiment. I was frustrated with how most academic writing was scarcely read, with the vast majority of articles having only a few readers. However, the response to Low-Fat Love forever changed my thinking. I was flooded with emails from readers, both students and general readers, which still trickle in to this day. When I spoke at conferences or book events, people lined hallways to whisper their most intimate stories to me. The breadth and depth of the comments were powerful and consistent, including many stories about how the novel made a reader see something in their own lives or in the culture differently. People made personal discoveries and even life changes. Some folks reread the book numerous times to “see more” or to “remind” themselves of the lessons learned. Some readers have emailed me many times over the years to tell me about the place the novel has in their lives. I had similar experiences with my subsequent novels American Circumstance and Blue. I wondered: What was it about the novel format that engaged people in these ways?
I think it comes down to the nature of fiction which begs the questions: How do we write fiction? How do we read it? As a writer, there’s freedom to explore topics and different points of view in a way that’s tricky or impossible with nonfiction. For example, fiction allows for the representation of interiority—what a person is thinking. That alone provides endless opportunities to show the gap between what people say and do versus what they think and feel. Interior dialogue exposes characters’ vulnerabilities, and those are the things that connect us and stimulate resonance, empathy, or sympathy. Herein we can start to see what the experience of reading fiction entails. Fiction also employs literary devices such as gaps in the narrative, symbolism, metaphors or similes, all of which ask readers to fill in the blanks in ways nonfiction rarely does. In this way, fiction promotes imagination and indeed critical thinking. Generally speaking, readers approach fiction differently too. It’s usually seen as a leisure time activity— something people take pleasure in. People’s defenses and tendency toward rebuttal are dialed down. That’s a very different frame of mind than when reading nonfiction or hearing an academic lecture or political speech.
These observations aside, there’s also science that looks at our brains on fiction which supports the contention that we consume fiction differently than prose and that the effects last longer. Here’s a little background info. Literary neuroscience is a growing field that explores the relationship between neuroscience and literature. It’s actually worth noting that Silas Weir Mitchell (1824-1914), one of the founders of American neurology, was also a fiction writer who published nineteen novels, seven poetry books, and many short stories. Many of his works of fiction were linked to patient observations made during his clinical practice and centered on topics dealing with psychological and physiological crises. One wonders if we are only now beginning to understand what Mitchell might have truly discovered. Here are a couple of studies.
Natalie Phillips (2012) used the fiction of Jane Austen in a study about how reading affects the brain. The preliminary results of this work have been revealing. Phillips and her colleagues found that the whole brain appears to be transformed as people engage in close readings of fiction. Moreover, there appear to be global activations across a number of different regions of the brain, including some unexpected areas such as those that are involved in movement and touch. This research helps to explain how we become immersed in novels, actually feeling as though we are within the story and that the house could burn down and we wouldn't notice. We actually place ourselves in the story. One can imagine how that experience might promote what we call “critical thinking” not to mention other positive benefits, such as the cultivation compassion and empathy. Research in this area is taking off. For another example, Gregory Berns (2013) led a team of researchers in a study published in Brain Connectivity that suggests there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel.
I believe deeply in the power of fiction to teach and transform. I also like a challenge. So for years I wondered if it was possible to write a novel about critical thinking that would actually mirror the process of critical thinking, but still manage to be the kind of quick read anyone could enjoy. This is how my latest novel, Spark, came to be.
A few years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in a seminar on the neuroscience of creativity hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Receiving that invitation was like getting the golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It was an extraordinary experience. The seminar occurred at the Sound of Music house in Salzburg, a magnificent castle. The participants were a mix of neuroscientists, artists, and a few others from around the world. We all felt deeply privileged to be there and shared a sense of responsibility to be productive. We were a group of strangers dropped in a spectacular setting trying to engage in inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue and it occurred to me that this was how to write a novel about critical thinking, problem-solving, and overcoming divisiveness. Over the course of the week the idea for Spark developed. After the seminar I spent some time in Vienna and wrote the outline which I put it in a drawer until the time was right.
Here’s a synopsis:
Professor Peyton Wilde has an enviable life teaching sociology at an idyllic liberal arts college—yet she is troubled by a sense of fading inspiration. One day an invitation arrives. Peyton has been selected to attend a luxurious all-expense-paid seminar in Iceland, where participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers in the world, will be charged with answering one perplexing question. Meeting her diverse teammates—two neuroscientists, a philosopher, a dance teacher, a collage artist, and a farmer—Peyton wonders what she could ever have to contribute. The ensuing journey of discovery will transform the characters' work, their biases, and themselves. This suspenseful novel shows that the answers you seek can be found in the most unlikely places.
The characters in Spark are ultimately pushed to challenge the assumptions they have about others, themselves, and their worldviews. As the characters try to figure out the meaning of the question they are challenged to answer, so too, readers go on that journey trying to figure it out. In this way, the novel is designed to promote critical thinking, and with any luck, compassion, for self and others. The characters in the novel are forced to confront their biases and to consider how others view the world, and through the process of following along, readers engage in the same process. Whatever “critical thinking” entails, surely challenging one’s assumptions is a part of it. Spark is meant to be a fun and easy read, but I hope that whether one reads it on a beach, in a book club, or even in a college class, it sparks their own imagination. I also hope that the novel inspires other researchers and educators to consider how they might develop new ways to tackle the challenge of “critical thinking,”
Spark Available here:
Spark at Guilford: (use promo code 7FSPARK for 20% off & free shipping in US/Canada): https://www.guilford.com/books/Spark/Patricia-Leavy/9781462538157
For readers in Australia/New Zealand: https://www.footprint.com.au/product-detail.asp?SubSection=%27leavy%27&product=9781462538157
Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., and Pye, B. E.. (2013). Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity. 3(6), pp. 590-600.
Thompson, H. and S. Vedantam. 2012. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR Health Blog. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen.html
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is a bestselling author and independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and research methods. [...]