I’ve decided to repost an entry from my personal blog today, since it seems especially fitting for this forum. Enjoy!
“Over the past decade, academic researchers…from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness.” (“The Business Case for Reading Novels“; Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 1/12/2012)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone (almost always a man) tell me that he doesn’t read fiction because he “can’t justify reading about something that didn’t happen.” Escaping into a novel feels like a luxurious indulgence, apparently, while reading non-fiction seems more educational and purposeful. Non-fiction, so the argument goes, will make you smarter, and that’s not necessarily the case for stories that are—gasp!—made up.
Despite being a writer of non-fiction, I love novels. I relish being transported into a world completely different than my own, and great fiction changes the way I look at the world. When I get lost in a book, I feel a shift in the way my brain interacts with my surroundings and processes my daily experiences, even when I’m not engaged in the act of reading. The stories stay with me.
This research (sent to me by one of my fabulous book club friends!) proves what shouldn’t really need proving: reading fiction has practical benefits. It creates empathy, which in turn improves social skills.
In one of Oatley and Mar’s studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. “The more fiction people [had] read,” they discovered, “the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues.” In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if “devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind,” they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities” allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects’ social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.
“Theory of mind” is the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us, a pretty vital skill for anyone looking to make new friends or, I don’t know, exist in the world.
So the next time someone mentions to you that it’s silly to read fiction, enlighten him on the practical applications of a night with The Art of Fielding or Room or even The Hunger Games. Is there a specific book that helped you empathize with those who are different from you? Or changed the way you see the world?