Can Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?

Published on 1/20/2021

Reading is often presented as something only certain people should factor in time for, which you’re usually too busy to do. In a society obsessed with hustling, we seem to negate the importance of reading, and more specifically of reading fiction.

There are countless benefits to reading fiction; we can credit it with increasing rates of volunteering and charitable giving, and even of the tendency to vote. But aside from these behaviours, reading fiction can actually make us a better person.

We often wrongly assume that non-fiction books are the only ones to hold the possibility of self-improvement, given how loudly it is advertised on the cover and blurb. But you should never judge a book by its cover, and the same is undoubtedly true with fiction. Advances in science have allowed us to quantify the effects of reading fiction, effects that have been felt and experienced for centuries. Using brain scans, heart monitors, interviews and more, we can now say with confidence that reading fiction makes you a better person. Let’s take a look at exactly how it does that.

Empathy

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, well reading fiction certainly allows you to do exactly that! Fiction can transport you to different worlds or give insight into another’s perspective, acting almost as a reality-stimulator. Seated in your cosy armchair, books have the power to make you feel happiness, sadness, fear and more. You can be led to experience events as if they happened to you, and to have the traces of them linger long after ‘The End’.

Several studies have displayed that imagining stories activates specific brain regions responsible for understanding others better and viewing the world from a new perspective.

Psychologist Raymond Mar used fMRI studies to view the substantial overlap in brain networks required for understanding stories and those for navigating interactions with other individuals. What does this mean? It means that you use the same skills and brain functioning to read a fiction book as you do to interact with people.

When you read about someone experiencing heartbreak in a novel, you feel sad for them; you sympathise with them. This is through your empathy, using your own experiences of heartbreak or other losses to imagine theirs. The same happens when someone in real life is going through a difficult time. You feel your friends pain through your empathy.

Reading is almost like practising this skill and building up that muscle. It will allow you to empathise deeper with people, creating stronger bonds and being a more empathetic person for others. This is a great trait to have and one attributed to some of the most successful people - such as Oprah!

A study done by Washington University even scanned the brains of fiction readers and found that their test subjects created “intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about” (Penenberg, Fast Company).

There are many things that you won’t experience for yourself but that others around you might, reading almost prepares you for all these situations. Reading about survivors of trauma, illness, sexual assault, and more could allow you to empathise deeper with acquaintances who then experience such things. It will enable you to step away from your existence and consider another.

Social cognition

Diana Tamir, of the Princeton Social Neuroscience Department, demonstrated that individuals who read fiction frequently have better social cognition than those who don’t. Reading fiction allows you to be more skilled at working out what other people are feeling or thinking at a given time. She used brain scans on individuals whilst reading fiction and saw increased activity in the brain’s default mode network involved in simulating what others are thinking.

By reading more fiction, which can be highly emotive and often in a first-person perspective, we grow more skilled in recognising others’ emotions and thoughts. This skill can get you far in any relationship or even in the workplace. By recognising others’ feelings, you can adapt yourself accordingly and be sensitive to their needs.

Inclusivity

Harry Potter and inclusivity… not a connection you’d make too quickly, especially now! But a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology looked at whether Harry Potter novels could be used as a tool for improving attitudes towards stigmatised groups. It used passages relating to discrimination, such as the allegory of “mudbloods”, and found that these students then showed changed attitudes about various stigmatised topics, such as immigrants or homosexuality.

Even though fiction novels don’t always portray the reality we live in, there are many nuanced connections to our society. Many consider The Hunger Games to be a metaphor for our capitalistic society, and the same can be said for many of the classics.

Fiction novels almost provide the stepping stone to understanding and learning about others, giving us experiences we could never have. An example is white privilege, something I understood more after reading “The Hate U Give” and “Queenie”, both of which are phenomenal books that I can’t recommend enough!

Reading fiction gives you the perspective to understand and consider others; it can make you a more open and inclusive person.

Stress-relief

Whilst stress-relief may not make you a better person on its own; it can certainly contribute to it. By the University of Sussex, reading has been shown to reduce your heart rate and lower muscle tension up to 68%. They further displayed that reading was more effective for stress-relief than listening to music or taking a walk, most likely due to the distraction that eases your body’s stress.

A stressed person is unlikely to be a happy one. They will lack the balance and rest needed to give kindness and compassion to others. By wearing themselves thin, they have less to offer and lack the mental space to be there for people around them. By destressing each day with reading, you can assist yourself in being a calmer and more thoughtful person, having the capacity to look after yourself and even others.

People who read fiction before bed have been shown to sleep better and longer. We’ve all encountered sleep-deprived or grumpy morning people, and they aren’t a pleasure to have around. By reading every evening and removing yourself from the rush of things, you can sleep more, and more sleep has been connected to a better mood and functioning.

Could the same be said for non-fiction?

There are many benefits to reading non-fiction, many of which are easier to spot than fiction. A non-fiction book will promise to make you healthier, more productive, more popular. But non-fiction books tend to provide you with anecdotal experience and simple tools; they don’t actively change you or your personality. It can happen, through following their tips and tricks and using them as a starting point, but the reading of non-fiction does not have the same benefits as fiction.

Having unfiltered access to a character’s interior world is something you lack in newspaper stories or biographies. We’re also “more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying” (BBC). We get more than the picture someone presents of themself, and we get invited into their thinking and the best or worst times of their life. We get to follow them over days, months, or years, providing a more in-depth insight into someone.

So if we all start reading fiction, then we’ll become better people and the world will be fixed? I wish it could be so simple! I don’t intend to present reading fiction as a quick-fix or finish line to growing as a person, but rather to encourage you to consider the benefits of it and not merely write it off as a ‘guilty pleasure’.

Reading fiction grows us in many aspects, particularly socially, which is somewhat ironic given that bookworms are wrongly assumed to be antisocial or loners. Reading fiction is an essential aspect of self-improvement and self-care, so carve out a piece of your day dedicated to this practice and make it a habit that sticks. Consider how you can read more in 2021, and make this the year that you actually do!

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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