Deb Rachel Has Proof That Reading Fiction Makes You A Better Person

2012 Debutante Rachel BertscheI’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?

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4 thoughts on “Deb Rachel Has Proof That Reading Fiction Makes You A Better Person

  1. Believe it or not, I feel the same about NON-fiction as a fiction writer! My husband (as I may have mentioned on the blog before) is a biologist and an avid reader of non-fiction so I am constantly picking up books around the house I would NEVER have picked out on my own but invariably they spark story ideas for me and I LOVE that.

    There’s no question that inspiration can come from a wide variety of influences–and sometimes the best way to find it is to step outside our normal reading boundaries.

  2. I’m with Erika on this — I read tons of nonfiction, both for research and for pleasure. Even though I write fantasy, I have to make sure my fiction is grounded in reality in order to give it the feel of authenticity. Readers are more than willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of a novel, but you shouldn’t make it too difficult for them to maintain the “fictive reality,” so to speak.

  3. Fiction is so often something that ‘could’ happen. Just because someone made it up in their head, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impossible. I’m nodding along with Linda’s comment, here, too, about needing to ground stuff in reality.
    I almost exclusively read fiction, other than research, and love when it takes me away to different worlds, be they historical or paranormal based. And even those stories that have otherworldly creatures illuminate our humanity–I think that’s what people look for in fiction.

  4. The research Anne cites resolves my chicken-and-egg quandary: it seems that reading fiction improves your sensitivity to and appreciation of complex human situations; it provides a richer ‘toolkit’ of understanding from which to pull when making decisions and building relationships. And as our business lives get more complex, faster-paced, less hierarchical and more dependent upon our ability to build support with those around us – that kind of toolkit becomes ever more critical to our success.

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