Reading fiction, understanding reality
As a novelist it isn’t unusual to hear a reader refer to the time they spend reading fiction as a “guilty pleasure”, or an act of self-indulgence, as if reading fake stories about fake people is somehow something for which they need to apologize. Reading a novel, they strongly imply, kept them from doing something “productive.” That commonplace sentiment is a pretty sobering thing to hear if you’ve spent most of your adult life creating fictional people caught up in fictional circumstances.
On the other hand, over the years I’ve often been struck by the number of high achievers (fill in your favorite prestigious professions here) who are voracious novel readers. When I first began to take note of this, shortly after I began writing fiction, I wondered how it was that their world so easily wandered into mine, while mine seemed so seldom to cross over into theirs. And I was curious what this high-achieving executive, or banker, or lawyer, or CEO, “got” out of reading novels. I had my own intuitions about this, and had always assumed that a person who habitually read fiction was unusually curious and, in their own way, creative.
Then I came across a fascinating article in a recent issue of the Scientific American Mind, that sheds a lot light on the nature of fiction reading. Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the university of Toronto and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, published an article examining recent research that shows that curling up with a good novel or collection of short stories, actually improves our social skills by helping us better understand other human beings. It seems that …“the process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view…it is actually an exercise in human interaction.”
In Professor Oatley’s article, he cites numerous facts established in years of scientific experiments about the relationship between reading fiction and improved emotion perception and social cognition. Here are some bullet points from the article:
reading fiction improves one’s ability to make mental models of others, known as theory-of-mind attributes…the ability to take the perspectives of other people, to make mental models of others, and to understand that someone else might have beliefs and intentions that are different from one’s own,
Using a functional MRI scanner scientists found that a reader’s brain responds to fictional characters and their actions in exactly the same way the reader’s brain would respond if the reader himself were actually doing what the character was doing. Learning to experience “life” from someone else’s point of view, enabling people to think and feel in new ways, increases a person’s empathy and understanding of those with whom we interact.
Fiction, it seems is not so much a solitary action of frittering away one’s time, as it is a social interaction which enables us to better understand our fellow man, and through him, ourselves.
Imagination is, indeed, the eye of the soul.
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