Ask liberal arts students about the benefits of reading fiction, and they will regale you with all kinds of nonsense about how it makes you a better person. Ask just about anyone else, and they will give you a dumbfounded stare. However, reading fiction has some hidden benefits regardless of who are you. Lets take a look at a few of them.
Research into the effects of reading on the brain is still hit or miss, but we do have a basic grasp on some of the benefits. Likewise, philosophers and essayists have been tackling this subject for a long time, so we'll take a look at some of their thoughts as well.
Reading Might Help You Learn Empathy
Over the last few years, a bunch of research has tied reading fiction to an increase in empathy. More accurately, neuroscience shows that the same areas of our brains light up when we're reading fictional accounts as when we're experiencing those events for ourselves. One study published in PLOS ONE details how researchers used fMRI to identify what parts of the brain respond when people read fiction. It turns out the same region in your brain lights up when you're reading a story about something as when you're experiencing it. Psychological studies have found similar results.
Writing for Time, science writer Annie Murphy Paul explains the research:
Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words.
That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.
It's important to note that despite recent ridiculous headlines and statements, the research doesn't prove that reading a book makes you a more empathetic person. As Slate points out, studying the link between empathy and reading fiction is more difficult than some make it out to be. In the case of the popularly cited empathy and reading research published in Science, the choices of both subjects (Harvard and Michigan students) and reading material (literary fiction and nonfiction about a nonhuman subject) are dubious at best; the scientific research on the links between empathy and reading is still wide open to debate.
That said, the idea that fiction makes you more empathetic has been around for a long time. Research has shown that fiction can help change societal values over time by simple exposure. It allows you as a reader to peel back the curtain of someone else's life and see how they think and work. Writer David Foster Wallace said it best in an interview published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:
We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.
If nothing else, reading fiction gives you the chance to put yourself in others' shoes. Hopefully, that will make you more empathetic, more understanding and more open to new ideas.
Fiction Teaches You That Change Is Inevitable
If you're a fan of science fiction, you've seen countless fictional gadgets and ideas come to life over the last several years. Science fiction prepares us for the future and works as a testing ground for all kinds of thought experiments. Speaking with Locus Magazine, writer Eileen Gunn also suggests that science fiction helps us accept change:
What science fiction does, especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it. Change is all around us. Probably things change faster now than they did four or five hundred years ago, particularly in some parts of the world. As [William] Gibson said decades ago, "The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed." And it's uneven in interesting ways: there are people in some parts of the world for whom change is slow, and life is much the same as it was when they were born. But because they don't have the old technology, the dead weight of the infrastructure (telephone wires, say), they can leapfrog ahead of us.
Of course, teaching change isn't limited to science fiction. Young adult fiction does it all the time, and even the most basic stories send the character thought a series of events that change. Characters succeed, fail, learn lessons and deal with new situations. When we read about all that, we're thinking about how we'd do the same and inevitably walk away with a basic understanding of how to react.
We know that change is always coming, but we're better at reacting to it as a narrative. If we're told just the facts, we'll zone out. If we're told a story, we'll be a lot more interested. According to Jennifer Aaker, professor of Marketing at Stanford, we might also remember more when it's told as a narrative. This helps us prepare for all types of situations unconsciously.
Fiction Breeds Curiosity
We've mentioned time and time again that one of the most important facets of learning is curiosity. When you're curious about something in the world, you seek it out and learn everything you can about it. As it turns out, fiction is a great starting point for this.
For example, if you're looking to try some new things in the kitchen, neuroscientist and food blogger Dr Darya Pino suggests picking up a work of fiction before a cookbook:
For instance, it's impossible for me to read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which I've done several times, without craving Spanish tapas and red wine for the better part of a month (this is also why Spanish food is one of my absolute favourite cuisines). The Last Chinese Chef had me exploring obscure alleyways in Chinatown in search of the best dumplings and peking duck, and before reading it I would have said Chinese food wasn't really my jam.
One study published in the Creativity Research Journal backs this up, suggesting that exposure to literature helps people open their minds to new ideas. Literature makes us feel at ease with the unknown, which in turns makes us a bit more curious about new things.
Reading Makes You a Better Storyteller
We're all prone to telling stories, even if we don't realise we're doing it. We often use stories to learn how the world works, or in a lot of cases, to make sense of the world that we see. Reading a lot of fiction gives you the vocabulary to do this well. The Atlantic sums up this idea like so:
Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives — a form of existential problem-solving. In a 1944 study conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel at Smith College, 34 college students were shown a short film in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary on one side of the screen. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was "worried," the "little triangle" was an "innocent young thing," the big triangle was "blinded by rage and frustration." Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.
The more stories you read, the better you'll be at telling your own story. Chances are, you'll also become a bit better at filtering the noise of the world and understanding it for yourself. It might sound like a stretch, but the better you are at telling your own story the more persuasive and interesting you'll be to others. Storytelling is natural for humans, but we're not naturally good at it.
Reading fiction doesn't always have the tangible benefits that science demands, but its nature exposes us to new worlds, ideas and people. If nothing else, this expands our worldview, which in turn helps us deal with the world as a whole.