by Davis Allen
In literature studies, some work under the assumption that fiction speaks to the core of humanness—that fictions opens a window to see who we really are. We need this to be true, because studying literature in the modern age feels like it is detached from reality. Abstract. Fanciful.
As a graduate student, reading fiction—and sometimes writing it too—is my primary job description. It is easy to doubt the importance or significance of reading fiction given the Western telos of having a good job, making lots of money, and retiring early. My siblings are off working practical jobs, as is evident by their production of practical money, and I sometimes ask myself, is reading worth it? Should I use my time doing something more practical?
We often concede the impracticality of reading, and instead justify reading and studying literature through arguing that it describes the human condition. However, I am very aware that people debate whether fiction really does speak to the core of humanity, whether there is such a thing as the human condition, and I too am on the fence in that debate—though that is a topic for a different blog post. This post aims to show that reading can have practical effects.
What can be said about fiction—if it does not tell us what humanity is—is that it can transform us into better humans. What do I mean by better humans? In this post, I mean minds and bodies that function more efficiently and have a higher capacity for empathy.
First, reading increases the connectivity and efficiency of our neural pathways. Without diving into too much science, a study conducted by Emory University showed that novel readers experienced “heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex… [and] in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region” (Clark).
Basically, scientific studies have shown that reading makes our brains—our physical, material brains—stronger and more efficient. This heightened activity does more than make readers smarter—it actually increases memory capability and reduces the likelihood of mental decline—like Alzheimer’s disease—later in life.
Reading makes our brains better—our ability to think, to remember, and to live a long life with a well-functioning mind.
Second, reading fiction helps our bodies cool down and relax. Reading a novel can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, and provides more stress relief than:
listening to music (reduces stress by 61 percent),
drinking tea or coffee (reduces stress by 54 percent),
taking a walk (reduces stress by 42 percent).
What’s even more interesting is that readers need only read for 6 minutes to receive this much stress relief (Reading). As an added bonus, reading also improves sleeping habits, increases levels of self-esteem, and decreases rates of depression (Seiter).
Third, reading literary fiction in particular increases our social awareness and makes us more empathetic. Scientific American published a study in 2013 that showed readers of literary fiction developed empathy much more than non-readers or readers of genre fiction (if you are skeptical about this study—check it out). Literary fiction increases empathy more than genre fiction because in genre fiction “the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others” (Chiaet).
The empathy gained from reading literary fiction is due to an improved theory of mind (Bergland). Children and adults who read fiction are transported into another person’s life and willingly take on another person’s perspective. The reader then, at their own pace, is able to reconcile their personal thoughts and opinions with those of the speaker. The reader must engage in the process of perspective-taking—a skill that dramatically helps with empathy in the real world.
These studies show that reading fiction has real, observable effects on us. This does not make a case necessarily for reading or writing as a profession, as much as it is a reminder that reading is worth it. And, as readers, we owe a lot to the writers we read who are capable of making us into better humans as this post suggests.
Maybe one day, you or I will be the writer that helps make our readers into better people too.
– Bergland, Christopher. “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function.” The Athlete’s Way. Psychology Today, 04 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Clark, Carol. “A Novel Look At How Stories May Change The Brain.” EScienceCommons. Emory University, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Seiter, Courtney. “The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction.” Buffer Open. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015.Web. 20 Apr. 2017.