This Is Your Brain on Fiction

What do you say to someone who prefers to read nonfiction over fiction? Easy. Read more fiction. According to several studies, when you read fiction full of detailed descriptions, clever metaphors, and complex characters, your brain is stimulated in novel ways:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Indeed, individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This relationship exists even after the researchers account for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels (which is debatable in its own right).

So: read more fiction.

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Source: New York Times