If you can understand when people use metaphors in conversation, you’re basically reading their mind, according to a new study published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

Metaphors are common in speech and literature, and they can be a word or a phrase used to compare two people, places, and so on and so forth. It’s not an obvious comparison, which anyone who’s read a Shakespeare play can tell you. So being able to understand these metaphors makes it easier to infer what someone is really thinking and feeling.

This ability is scientifically referred to as theory of mind, which is often tested through the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET). Those who take the test must correctly identify the emotions and mental states in a series of black and white photographs of eyes. And in the present study, researchers administered this test after three experiments.

In the first experiment, participants rated a set of metaphorical and literal comments between two friends, including “What a gem of an idea,” versus, “What a very good idea.” Participants read short metaphorical and literal sentences and created a context or scenario in which these sentences would occur in the second experiment, while participants read a set of metaphorical or literal sentences on a computer screen and performed two unrelated tasks. Basically, the last experiment was a mix of one and two.

The results showed reading and employing metaphors led to “superior performance on the RMET.” Reading metaphor especially fostered a greater degree of intimacy in the reader’s mind, thus making it easier to infer emotional states on the RMET. The evidence, researchers wrote, “is that people simulate the motoric, sensory, or emotional states described in a metaphor.”

"Our findings, along with some others, also stress the importance of literature in fostering and understanding human empathy," Albert Katz of the University of Ontario in Canada, said in a press release. "Reading fiction in general, and metaphors specifically, indeed promotes people's ability to identify the emotions or mental state of others."

Books then are a way people can strengthen this “mind reading” ability — bonus if it’s a paper book. One study found paper readers report “higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion,” as well as narrative coherence when compared to iPad readers.

Source: Bowes A, Katz A. Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind. Memory & Cognition. 2015.