Is fiction good for us? Does it build our moral character – or erode it?
At school I was told that only certain literature was good for me; it had to be literary, something approved by the district Education Board, preferably a classic. Perhaps that idea came all the way down from Plato, who wanted to ban fiction altogether from his ideal republic.
But Plato, that grim and self important pedagogue, had it all wrong. We know this, because advances in neuroscience and the latest methodologies used to map the brain mean we no longer have to speculate.
It seems that curling up with a good book is not a selfish indulgence. To the contrary, the latest research confirms something many of us have suspected for a long time; reading fiction is good for you.
These days they can put electrodes on your head to see what happens when you read. When you were at school and college they used exams to measure how much information your brain retained. But the new neuroscience can measure how much your brains reacts.
It’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Basically, the boffins can see which area of the brain lights up in response to stimulus.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, analyzed 86 fMRI studies, published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011, and found significant overlapping between neural networks used to understand stories and those used to interpret our interactions with other people.
Apparently, whenever we connect with someone in our lives we try to figure out their thoughts and feelings, so we know how to respond to them. We get a lot of our information on how to do this from stories. So reading novels actually teaches something absolutely essential to healthy human relationships – empathy.
Why? Because the novel is unrivaled as a medium for exploring the emotional lives of others. It offers something unavailable to most of us in real life; the opportunity to engage completely in someone else’s viewpoint.
Mar published studies in 2006 and 2009 that show that heavy fiction readers easily outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy.
Wait, though. Was it just that more empathic people read more novels?
Apparently not; a further study in 2010 showed that small children (aged 4-6) who were read to a lot could read other people far better than counterparts who did not. In other words the more stories they had read to them, the better their ‘theory of mind’ (the scientists buzzword for empathy.)
[Interesting sidenote: this trend was imitated by watching movies but not by watching television. Mar speculates that because children watch movies mostly with their parents, they have the opportunity to ask questions about the interactions taking place, and learn; but they watch TV alone. Also movies are stories; TV is a jumble of many things.)
Mar concluded: “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a fictional narrative.” In plain English: fiction does not just inform, it changes how we act in life. We don’t respond to logic but we will respond to Jodi Picoult.
You can be moved by Martin Luther King’s speeches; but read The Help and you start to feel emotionally invested. Suddenly you have just the merest sense of how it might have felt to be black and poor in sixties America. The argument is no longer abstract. It’s personal.
But there is a second benefit to reading fiction. As we all know, storytellers are obsessed with vice and violence. From the whispering evil of Iago to the brutality of Dicken’s London to the sexual sadism of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” novelists portray ugliness very well – and they always have an opinion about it.
We may not write ‘the moral of the story is’ at the end, as they did in Aesop’s day, but believe me, it’s there.
A hundred years ago Leo Tolstoy contended that novels were ‘morally beneficial.’ Fiction, he reasoned, is dominated by the concept of poetic justice.
Yet life is not poetic or just; we know this. Just turn on the evening news. But seeing the world not as it is, but as what it could be, is vital for us, as individuals and as a society. Without a vision for change, we do not change.
Austrian psychologist Marcus Appel has pointed out that no society functions properly unless its members believe in justice, the idea that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. Happy endings may persuade us to believe a lie; but believing the lie moves us to try and make that lie true.
Fiction then, regardless of genre, shapes our moral character and develops our empathic response. Why else would we be so addicted to made-up conflicts and made-up people? How else could story tellers survive the Darwinian principle?
Stories are important. The evolution of the hero and the re-telling of epic and myth through countless generations has given us common cause. It tells us who we are and what we want to become.
Does this research also explain why men have traditionally made up such a small part of the reading population? Have we, as a gender, worshipped too long at the feet of Logic? Is the disdain for Story why it’s so hard to get some of us to emotionally engage?
Perhaps you’d like to discuss that one between yourselves. My job here is done. Thanks to science, I am pleased to report that it’s official; pulp fiction should no longer be a guilty pleasure.
Fiction : it’s the healthy choice.