How Reading Fiction Will Change You
As a child, books were my best friend.
Literally. (Don’t worry, I promise I had human friends too)
I used to imagine myself as a friend of the characters I’d read about. I’d pretend to practice spells with Hermione (I was a crucial addition to the trio, obviously), become the advisor to the princess of Genovia, or be the sixth member of The Famous Five.
As I got older, I would shift between different genres and perspectives, and found my sweet spot of historical fiction which I dived into. The perfect situation for me was to curl up with characters I could relate to, a vivid setting, unpredictable plot and a hot cup of tea.
But as adult life took over, I read less and less. I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of reading I had to do for university, lengthy essays and chapters that effectively put me off reading for a while. I eventually got out off my reading slump, but with so much else bidding for my time and energy, I saw reading novels as nothing more than a hobby, an indulgent pastime, the reward after real work.
It’s common to see reading fiction as frivolous, especially when compared to reading nonfiction. Articles, news and essays give you hard facts, real events and applicable knowledge. Fiction is, well, fiction. It’s make-believe. Entertainment.
But that doesn’t explain the post-novel insights I’m so often overcome by that leave me mulling over a story for days. The realisation of how things that seem black and white now were not always that way, after reading about Nazi Germany in The Women in the Castle, the awe of early methods of child-bearing after reading birthing scenes from The Red Tent, the understanding of how trauma can push a virtuous person to depravity in The Map of Love.
I finally realised that fiction is not an escape from reality. It is the most immersive way to truly understand reality. Here’s how:
Fiction makes you more emotionally intelligent.
I’m a pretty calm person who very rarely feels the hot stirrings of anger. Angry people have always been an enigma to me. Why can’t they rein it in? Why did they have to make themselves and everyone around them so miserable with what seemed to me to be a very controllable emotional reaction? I’d try to understand all I could but I still… couldn’t understand. But after reading a novel where I was given unrestricted access to the mind of a very angry protagonist, where I could follow their train of thought and almost feel the tension bubbling inside them until it erupted into a regrettable action - the angry people in my own life were suddenly a lot easier to understand.
Research explains this by showing an overlap in brain networks used to understand stories and navigate social interactions. One study demonstrated that when given various photos, fiction readers could better understand emotional states and the complexity of a given situation. Another study showed that children who were exposed to stories could recognise how someone else may be feeling, even if the child never experienced something similar in their own life and could apply these understandings in real life.
Basically, these studies show that fiction readers gain greater empathy and a better capacity for something called ‘theory of mind’. Sounds fancy, I know. Theory of mind is a term used to refer to your ability to look beyond what a person is saying or doing, and understand the emotions, intentions and insecurities that may be fuelling them. Stories offer a unique opportunity to practice this skill, as you follow a character’s longings, guess at hidden motives and watch how emotions manifest into actions. This, in turn, helps you better understand the people around you and cultivate stronger relationships…and basically gives you superhuman powers of telepathy.
Fiction is immersive.
In a way that few other things are. It leaves you heartbroken, elated or devastated for a character. You feel a characters exhaustion after a journey and their buoyant happiness at a new relationship. Literally.
It turns out that when you read about a character running for their life, the same parts of your brain that would come alive if you were running for your life are actually activated too. For a long time we assumed that only the language processing parts of the brain were activated when reading a story but, in fact, what we read leaves impressions all around the brain.
Have you ever wondered why reading about the sourness of a lemon makes you notice the saliva in your own mouth? Or why you enjoy reading about food? Turns out it’s not just because you’ll do anything to be surrounded by food. When you come across words in a story like ‘lavender’, ‘cinnamon’ or ‘coffee’, the regions of your brain responsible for smell and taste are stimulated even though there is no physical stimuli to cause this. Fiction is powerful and immersive, in a way that makes you understand things beyond facts and events by bringing you as close to an actual experience as you can be.
Fiction gives your brain a workout.
As you read one piece of dialogue, your brain is visualising the location, figuring out why one character is suddenly offended, predicting the response of the other character, using the information the author previously gave to fill in the gaps, relating this to a previous experience you had in your own life, and envisioning what will happen next. Whew. That’s a lot.
As you read, your brain is constantly evaluating many different scenarios and doing a heap of problem solving as you try to get ahead of the author (only to be totally thrown off when - bang! Another plot twist). And it shows. Reading improves brain connectivity, and actually changes the architecture of your brain. One study had participants read a section of a novel every night and compared their brain scans before and after they read. The brain scans showed that readers gained heightened connectivity with networks being strengthened all around the brain. The amazing thing is that the neural connections were not just an immediate reaction that faded after reading but were shown to have long-lasting effects on the biology of the brain.
As soon as you open a book, your brain is already looking ahead, evaluating different possibilities and predicting how a problem will be solved because we cannot stand being left in the dark. A seemingly unsolvable mystery, star-crossed lovers, an adventure full of dead ends - they all provoke our creativity as we guess, predict and wonder how on earth the author will resolve the crisis that is ensuing.
So. You want to understand the people around you? Create stronger relationships, have more empathy, become more creative, be better at problem solving and boost your brain power? Get off your laptop. Pop down to your local library. Peruse the shelves, reading blurbs and flipping through pages until you find something that ignites a little light inside of you. Go home and make yourself a cup of tea. Crack open your novel, your new world of endless possibilities.