Why Reading Fiction Is Important. More Benefits Than You Would Think.

It’s fair to say we all struggle to find enough time to read. What, with all the work to stay on top of, social media, various extra-curricular commitments, keeping fit, seeing friends and so much more, a few quiet hours a week just to indulge in a good book seems for many, a bit of a stretch.

But not only is reading fiction good for our imaginations, for relaxation and for making us more able to express ourselves articulately, but recent studies in neuroscience have also shown that many of the traits employers will be looking for can be developed, simply by reading fiction.

Yes, as simple as that: empathy, theory of mind (an understanding that other people’s beliefs and desires are different from ours) and critical thinking, are all improved when we read. If we are to think of the cognitive thinking part of the brain as a muscle that can be trained, the answer is to flex it by reading.

As if to drive the point home, super successful businessman, Warren Buffett, reportedly reads 500 pages a day and Elon Musk of SpaceX fame and now Twitter fame, claims to have learned to build rockets by reading books.

Clearly, Musk was reading nonfiction but according to the Harvard Business Review, research suggests that, ‘reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction’. And it goes on to explain for instance that, ‘reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations.’

As the Canadian psychologist, Keith Oatley, puts it, reading fiction is like, ‘the mind’s flight simulator.’ It’s a way to experience something without actually doing it and Oatley found that when reading, we identify with characters and understand their goals in a way that allows us to improve our social skills and empathy.

“Fiction and stories do a lot of things for us,” agrees William Chopik, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “They expose us to uncomfortable ideas and provide us with the opportunity to take other people’s perspectives...”.

A Neuroscientist at Princeton has demonstrated this via brain scans; Diana Tamir found that when people read fiction, the part of the brain ‘linked to simulating what other people are thinking’ becomes more active. In fact, the belief that fiction is a key facilitator of improved emotional and behavioural patterns is finding ground to the extent that at the University of California Irvine for instance, medical students are now offered a humanities module, which allows them access to fiction, as part of their training. That is certainly a vote of confidence for the notion that reading is good for the mind.

The obvious literary benefits and the knowledge gained from reading aside, important as they are, we may well be improving our chances of success at work and in our future lives, simply by picking up a book now and again. As the Harvard Business Review explains ‘reading literary fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information.

Perhaps it’s time to join that book club if you haven’t already.

Suggested Links:

How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding | Discover Magazine

The Case for Reading Fiction (hbr.org)

Does reading fiction make us better people? - BBC Future

Entering the Business World? Flex Your Empathy Muscle | TalksForTeens