Science Finds Fiction Is Good for Us

by Nancy Jane Moore

books“I don’t read fiction.” How many times has someone said that to you?

I’ve heard it a lot. It’s usually accompanied by a sneer. Fiction is escapism, such people say. You’re wasting your time. You should be learning something when you read, not going off in a dream world.

Some years back, another writer asked me why I wrote fiction. The way he said it implied that I was wasting my time on fiction, that writing nonfiction was the important thing to do. This from a guy who wrote books about baseball.

Well, I’ve got news for him and all the other people who disparage fiction. Neuroscience is finding that reading fiction is good for us.

In an op-ed in the New York Times headlined “Your Brain on Fiction,”Annie Murphy Paul reports on some scientific studies that suggest that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Paul looks at work by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley and psychologist Raymond Mar, who have been studying the effect of fiction on the brain for years. Paul quotes from Oatley:

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Mar, Paul said, has analyzed fMRI studies and “concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.”

I found her piece compelling, but when it comes to articles about scientific studies, I go looking for primary sources and information about the scientists. It turns out both Oatley and Mar have published a number of articles on the subject, some of them together.

For example, here’s one by the two together from 2008 called “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience” (PDF alert). Here’s the first couple of sentences of the abstract:

Fiction literature has largely been ignored by psychology researchers because its only function seems to be entertainment, with no connection to empirical validity. We argue that literary narratives have a more important purpose. They offer models or simulations of the social world via abstraction, simplification, and compression. Narrative fiction also creates a deep and immersive simulative experience of social interactions for readers.

You can find a list of Mar’s articles here and Oately’s here.

I’m one of those people who frequently says that various works of fiction have changed my life. Last week I said reading John Brunner made me more conscious of the environmental issues facing the human race. I know that reading Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon books made me understand on a gut level why some men like anonymous sex in public places.

I can think of many other books that had profound impacts on me, though it might be hard to catalogue all the ways they changed me. But I am the sum of what I have read as well as of what I have done and how I was raised.

And science provides evidence that I am right. Here is an article by Oatley and others entitled “On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self” (PDF alert). This reports on a study of the different reactions of two groups of readers, one of which read a Chekov story and the other of which read a comparison text in documentary form. The results showed changes in both emotions and personality traits in the fiction readers as opposed to the others.

Hmm. If reading fiction changes people and makes them more empathic, perhaps we should start a campaign of sending particularly moving novels to politicians.


Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.



Science Finds Fiction Is Good for Us — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 3/23/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  2. A book that I started reading but found a bit difficult supports this hypothesis on the political level. Here’s a relevant quote:

    “To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance – all these and many more topics dealt with in this book – can’t be understood without some “grasp of the ungraspable” emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray.” (Charles Hill, Grand Strategies)

    While your blog isn’t specifically about genre, let me add this twist to the discussion. I think not only is fiction important for helping readers develop empathy, but I think science fiction is important for helping readers understand our modern society. Technology changes so fast and how it’s changing us is barely understood. Science fiction adds that to the equation–so not only do we have stories that encourage our emotional development, but stories that encourage our socio-technological development.

  3. Hi Robert: Great minds think alike and all that. I notice on your post that you mention Oatley’s book, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, which sounds like something worth reading.

    Sam X, I agree with you about science fiction. It would be interesting to see what studies might show in the brains of people reading the kind of science fiction where you have to imagine far future realities.