The tradition of story-telling and using fiction to explain human behavior is as old as human civilization itself. Over time, storybooks took the place of the village story-teller; and provided all the same benefits.
Generations of children developed a sense of right and wrong through the tales and fables their parents helped them read. Adults used novels to entertain themselves and to feel connected to the larger world. Even though people are now taking to television over books; there is plenty of scientific evidence that favors reading – particularly good fiction.
Fiction has traditionally been a source of entertainment, social education and spiritual growth. It has been a source of moral direction for adults and children alike; and has been used by prolific writers to bring philosophical and metaphysical discussions to the masses. Reading was once considered not just a relaxing activity, but also a duty to one’s intellect.
Today though, people of all ages are reading less by the day; and turning to alternative sources of amusement. In the few books being read, non-fiction is often considered the ‘better’, smarter, and more valuable option. (Without knocking the value of reading non-fiction) The evidence actually suggests that curling up with a good story may be more effective in putting us on the path to becoming better versions of ourselves. There are some surprising benefits to reading well written fiction that can often go unnoticed.
1. Increases Empathy
When we read a story that we connect with emotionally, it can feel like being a witness to events that are actually taking place in front of us. We observe the experiences of the characters, and feel for them as we would for someone we actually know. Thus, the mental experience of reading a good book can mimic real world experiences.
This is particularly so for children; who learn to relate to the protagonist in the book and see the world through his/her eyes, and not just their own. Even for adults, reading about different types of people and experiences helps in developing sensitivity for people from different backgrounds – at least till we remember the story.
Brain imaging studies have found that reading fiction involves the same areas of the brain as witnessing real life incidents. Good literature also activates parts of the brain associated with controlling the muscles needed to carry out the task we are reading about.
Finally, reading activates multiple brain areas at once – just like real world experiences would. The only caveat here is, the reader needs to feel involved and transported into the story. Television, on the other hand, seems to lead to lesser brain activation, and doesn’t really activate many different areas. Thus, reading provides a ‘practice run’ for understanding and responding to others’ emotions in real life.
2. Improves Pro-Social Behavior
A lot of good fiction – particularly books for children – provides examples and role models responding to (sometimes metaphorical) complex situations similar to the those we experiences in our every-day lives.
Reading about characters doing good deeds prepares our mind to consider a similar response when we see someone who needs help. Such characters serve to inspire us, and give us the courage to be kind and helpful. their actions (and the consequences of those actions) become an example for us to follow.
Reading stories about people who help others also makes us more attentive to the emotional states of others – perhaps because the characters in the books were attentive to the people around them. In giving us examples of how we could respond, literature helps to shape our understanding of right and wrong, helpful and kind.
Typically, the actions of the protagonist are well intentioned and kind, while the antagonist provides examples of unhelpful and mean behavior. Essentially, literature can help define our understanding of morality and ethics by representing some actions as good and others as bad.
3. Increases Awareness Of How Others Think
As very young children we are aware of our own likes, dislikes, and needs; but are unclear about the desires and needs of others. As we grow up, we begin to understand that others may have different thoughts and preferences from our own.
This ability to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions, and knowing that others may not share them; is called the theory of mind or T.o.M. For both young children and adults, reading fiction helps develop and maintain theory of mind by providing perspective into the thoughts and desires of different characters.
When parents read to young children, they are likely to discuss the characters and their thoughts, ideas and feelings. This helps children come to terms with the idea that others can think and feel differently from them. Stories also require us to actively imagine how each character is feeling; and thus encourage us to gather insight into their mental lives. In turn, this makes us sensitive to the variations in the emotional lives of the people around us.
4. Enhances Overall Mental Ability
Reading fiction can temporarily make our brains work better. Stories affect the brain in ways similar to having complex experiences of our own, hearing a narrative, or solving puzzles. They engage multiple parts of the brain, including areas associated with emotion, problem-solving, memory, creative thinking, and even parts that process sensory information that comes in from the rest of the body. Once activated, our brains (and the connections between different areas) are faster to respond for a little while.
People who read regularly, show better neural connectivity in their brains at all ages. But this becomes more evident in the very young and the elderly. Particularly as we grow older, our brains benefit more from reading fiction. Among elderly people, readers have lesser cognitive decline, and show fewer (and less severe) signs of degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Improves Ability To Handle Complex Situations
Reading a good story can be like a practice run for complex life situations. Thus, people who read regularly are a little more ready to cope with the grey areas that life inevitability throws up. They are better at handling ambiguous situations, and are prepared less daunted by difficult experiences.
Not only are fiction readers more open to new ideas, they are also more interested in exploring them. They adjust better to change, since fiction primes them to be receptive to (and even welcoming of) change. Readers are used to understanding the way things and people relate to each other; and thus are faster and more accurate at filling the gaps (and seeing both sides) when they only know part of the story.