Science says reading fiction does something special for your brain


It’s always been assumed that reading fiction is good for your mental health but the scientific evidence for this has been hard to find.

Now a scientist, Keith Oatley, who is both a psychologist and a novelist, says that reading fiction, and perhaps especially literary fiction, simulates a kind of social world that prompts understanding and empathy in the reader.

His paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences highlights brain imaging studies that reveal different brain activity and higher empathy in people reading fiction compared with those reading non-fiction.

“There’s a bit of a buzz about it now,” says Oatley, a professor emeritus of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development.

“In part, because researchers are recognising that there’s something important about imagination.”

Similar empathy-boosting effects have been found in people watching the fictional television drama The West Wing or when playing a video game with a narrative storyline such as the first-person detective game Gone Home.

The common theme is engagement with characters.

“The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social,” says Oatley.

“What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people — with friends, with lovers, with children — that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.”

However, this new field of the psychology of narrative fiction still has a long way to go. For example, there are questions surrounding the role of storytelling in human evolution.

“Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called entertainment,” says Oatley. “I think there is also something more important going on.”

Oatley’s book, The Case of Emily V, won the 1994 Commonwealth Prize for first novel.

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