Curling up with a good book has often been described as ‘a guilty pleasure’
It’s almost as if we think that spending our time reading novels is an indulgence.
Only now scientists say that it’s not an indulgence at all. Reading novels – rather than your newsfeed, work manuals, even history books – is actually very good for you.
It has two major benefits – and they affects us our whole life through.
Researchers have used electrodes to see what happens inside our heads when we read. It’s called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The scans show which areas of the brain light up in response to certain stimuli.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, analyzed 86 fMRI studies and found significant overlapping between the neural networks used to understand stories and those used to interpret our interactions with other people.
When we meet someone new we try to figure out their thoughts and feelings, so we know how to respond to them. It seems we get a lot of our information on how to do this from stories, because narratives offer us something unavailable to us in real life; the opportunity to engage completely in someone else’s viewpoint.
For example: you can be moved by Martin Luther King’s speeches; but read “The Help” and you feel emotionally invested, you have some sense of how it might have felt to be black and poor in sixties America. The argument is no longer abstract. It’s personal.
Mar published two subsequent studies that show that heavy fiction readers easily outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy; and the ability to emphasise with others is absolutely essential to healthy human relationships.
A further study showed that small children (aged 4-6) whose parents read to them a lot could read other people far better than counterparts who did not.
About the time we can tie our own laces, we can learn to walk in someone else’s shoes.
There’s a second major benefit to your book habit.
Fiction, as Tolstoy said, is dominated by the concept of poetic justice.
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 it could be, is vital for us, individually and as a society. Without a vision for change, we do not change.
You like happy endings, for example? You know, of course, they do not always happen in life. But psychologists say that believing the lie moves us to try to 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?
The evolution of the hero and the re-telling of epic and myth through countless generations has given us common cause.
A story – whether it’s Cinderella or War and Peace or The Road – reflects to us who we are, and what we want to become.