The Benefits of Reading Fiction in a Digital Age

Friday, October 4, 2019
Nick Williams
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“In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”

—Ceridwen Dovey, The New Yorker

Being a human is pretty damn tough. We are constantly bombarded with external stimuli—social pressures, financial pressures, cultural differences—and the list goes on.  We can all collectively benefit from the safety blanket that is curling up with a great novel on a rainy day. 

Oftentimes, given the chaos that surrounds us, it can be all too easy to ignore our own internal and emotional development—the implicit things that connect everyone in the world, our humanity. 

Considering that we have been passing along stories since the dawn of humankind,  there must be SOME practical benefits to reading fiction other than just passing a few hours on a lazy Sunday morning, right?

So how can fiction help us develop ourselves—our emotional and practical intelligence, our empathy, and our understanding of the world around us?

Truth is stranger than fiction

In an article for The New Atlantis, Erik P. Hoel argues that despite our current cultural climate, one that is dominated by several different storytelling mediums, fiction still plays a substantive role in our society. He believes fiction is the most potent way for a person to reflect on themselves, or more specifically, to consider what exactly it means to be a human being. Hoel explains

“[Fiction] is a reminder, a sign in the desert that seems to be pointing nowhere until its flickering neon lettering is read: ‘There is something it is like to be a human being. And what it is like matters.’ The sign points to what cannot be seen.”

Hoel’s opinion can be seen reflected in more scientific or psychological theories and studies which link the reading of fiction to improved emotional intelligence and an enhanced ability to empathize with others. 

One such theory, the Theory of Mind is a psychological premise central to the benefits of reading fiction. Essentially, the Theory of Mind is the social manifestation of empathy—the ability to understand other people’s beliefs, emotions, and intentions and to base your social interactions on those understandings. 

The problem is that, for many, truly understanding another person’s subjective feelings is a difficult task—after all, we aren’t Deanna Troy from Star Trek: The Next Generation, we don’t have the ability to precisely sense other people’s emotions—all we have to go on is our own experience with social interactions and our relationships with others.  

Our tools for empathy are limited to begin with, and additionally, those tools can be muddied by the reality of external factors like our environment and social norms.

Luckily, here comes fiction to help save the day. Fiction helps with our capacity for social engagement because it allows us to gain more nuanced and varied experience in terms of human relationships.

In fact, a comprehensive study, conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, and published in a 2013 edition of Science journal, showed evidence that reading literature directly helps to develop Theory of Mind in adults. As stated in the study:

“We submit that fiction affects ToM processes because it forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction....The worlds of fiction...pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.”

Basically, reading fiction offers us the opportunity to practice our people-reading skills in an imaginary place without any tangible stakes. The reader is presented with and, hand-in-hand with the book’s protagonist, asked to navigate complex and highly-developed dilemmas reflective of real-world situations.

This guided navigation helps to develop a person’s sense of empathy. The characters in a great novel are like a group of sherpas leading you through the mountains of human experience. 

Subsequently, even if a particular real-life conflict might not affect or relate to you directly, you might feel better equipped to help, or at least understand, others who are struggling with something you’ve come across in a memorable novel.

On top of that, reading fiction is pretty dang good for your brain and is linked to several mental health benefits.  

Get your daily dose of vitamin R(ead) 

While reading fiction is not a magical cure that will make mental health issues dissipate completely—and should not be considered a substitute for a psychologist, therapy, or medication—there is no doubt a therapeutic quality to reading. 

First, fiction can provide a sense of escapism, or ‘transportation’—essentially, allowing you to ignore your everyday struggles and to immerse yourself in a different world, or in the mind of someone else.  

Second, reading fiction helps to develop your EQ (emotional quotient). A more developed emotional persona can help to more successfully wrestle with mental problems and insecurities. 

Reading fiction can help or inspire us to tackle extremely complicated problems—such as addiction, trauma, or depression—head-on. In this sense, fiction can provide a set of tools we might be lacking, or unable to confront, in our lives otherwise.  

There is a litany of other mental health-based positives, as outlined by Ceridwen Dovey in her article for The New Yorker, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”

“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”

Dovey discusses a therapeutic practice called bibliotherapy, recently seeing a return to relevance, in which professional bibliotherapists spend their careers prescribing particular books—both fiction and nonfiction—to help people get through those tough moments that are inevitable in life.   

This type of counseling is nothing new. In fact, as Dovey points out, for centuries fiction has been prescribed to those suffering from depression or anxiety:

“The method of bibliotherapy [traces] all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, ‘who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’  The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading.” 

The first step in bibliotherapy is feeling out the process between therapist and patient.  Think of a traditional therapy session—a counselor probably won’t immediately jump into the multitude of reasons why the time you missed a field trip in elementary school led to your crippling anxiety as an adult—rather, they will spend time understanding your situation and whatever issues might be bothering you. 

In the case of bibliotherapy, a bibliotherapist will study your experiences and recommend a series of books to help you. The art of bibliotherapy isn’t about providing you with a series of self-help or I Hate My Job and Am Unhappy in My Marriage for Dummies books—rather, bibliotherapy seeks to encourage the type of self-discovery, empathy-building, and transportation that can be best derived from reading a great novel or collection of poetry.

As stated by Jenni Ogden for Psychology Today:

“When we find ourselves weeping with or for the character in the story, we are also weeping for ourselves; a sort of catharsis. When our character finds happiness in the end, well perhaps so can we. When the story drops us into a hurricane, we learn from that, and if we are ever faced with a real one, it will not be an entirely new experience.”

While bibliotherapy is an interesting practice, by no means do you need to set up an appointment to derive the therapeutic benefits of reading a great book. One quick trip to the local bookstore,  library, or your friendly Amazon-retailer is really all it takes. 

Practical magic

Aside from the emotional and mental benefits of fiction, there are some tangible benefits as well, including better sleep and stronger reading, writing, and lateral thinking skills.

It’s usually pretty obvious when somebody has underdeveloped writing or creative problem-solving skills. We’ve probably all received that weird, almost illegible e-mail from some uncle or co-worker who hasn’t cracked a book since high school.  

Think tank

Because fiction presents a reader with problems (and sometimes solutions) to issues that might elude them otherwise, reading fiction has been connected to an increased capacity to think laterally, which is the ability to use creative thinking to solve practical problems. 

In a very practical sense, lateral thinking helps to tackle problems indirectly. If someone’s car breaks down, their initial thought process might be: “let’s take it to the mechanic and get it fixed.” A lateral thinker might instead think: “My car broke down because I keep running over a thousand potholes on my street every day—maybe I should start a petition and present it to city hall to get my road fixed.”

Simply put, experiencing a wide variety of scenarios and conflicts bolsters your toolbox for dealing with real-life situations. The more tools you have, the more methods you might have to confront a problem. When you’re thinking laterally, you might find solutions to problems by way of unconventional means, also known as “thinking outside of the box”.  

Additionally, by forcing yourself into the shoes of another, by transporting yourself into another world, you are developing your capacity for imagination. Imagination isn’t just for kids or for novelists—a strong, healthy imagination has applications that can range from professional to personal.  

The gift of gab 

Having strong vocabulary skills is relevant as an adult for a number of reasons, one of which being that an enhanced vocabulary can increase your capacity for social interaction. A more engaging conversationalist, who can think outside the box and articulate themselves clearly, will generally have an easier time developing friendships or networking. 

Since our capacity for imagination is at its strongest in our youth, it’s not surprising that there are statistics showing that those who read for pleasure while growing up have stronger vocabulary skills than those who did not:

According to The Digital Reader

“In a report titled ‘Vocabulary From Adolescence to Middle-Age’, two researchers at the UK's Institute of Education studied the vocabulary test scores of 9,432 test subjects in their early forties...Those who had read for pleasure at the age of 10 scored 67% on the vocab test when tested at the age of 42, but those who had not read for fun as kids scored an average of only 51%.”

Having a strong vocabulary goes beyond grammar. The broader vocabulary you possess, the stronger writer you will become. Creative and engaging writing has practical applications that extend well beyond writing fiction or poetry: being able to write a badass email or press release may have once been an undervalued art form but is becoming increasingly more relevant in today’s cultural climate.

The big sleep

Active reading of fiction also provides the tangible benefits of reduced stress, and, if implemented properly into our daily rituals, better sleep habits. 

In a study conducted by consultancy Mindlab International for the University of Sussex, cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis noted that reading reduced stress levels by 68 percent, a more significant percentage than other stress-relieving activities like listening to music, going for a walk, or drinking tea.

Lewis observed it only took test subjects the act of reading a book silently for six minutes until they were able to slow down their heart rate and ease tension in their muscles. Psychologists believe this is because reading simultaneously requires us to concentrate while also providing the distraction of a literary world. 

It’s no secret that with reduced stress also comes better sleep. Everyone has heard that avoiding bright lights (turning your phone’s brightness down to 5% while you scroll Instagram for 3 hours before bed DOES NOT COUNT OK?) can lead to more normalized sleep patterns.  

And if you’re still not convinced, just listen to the experts: The National Sleep Foundation emphasizes and endorses the idea that disconnecting from screens, and pursuing a calming activity like reading a tangible book instead, will ultimately improve your sleep rituals.   

Leaders read too 

While fiction by definition may be imaginary, leaders across industries have credited the influence of reading fiction to their tangible success. 

Self-made millionaire and expert in the field of “mental toughness training,” Steve Siebold became interested in discovering elements or strategies connecting the philosophies of his peers and found that out of 1,200 interviews with some of the world’s wealthiest people, the one trait they all had in common was that they read everything—from self-improvement books to autobiographies. 

These people aren’t just reading thousands of “How to Get Rich Quick” manuals. They are accumulating knowledge—different perspectives, stories, theories, and human histories—from a diverse range of sources.  

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk attributes several of his innovations and personal successes to lateral thinking and big-picture understandings derived from reading fiction. Most of the books on Musk’s ‘life-changing booklist’ will come as no surprise, yet one series, in particular, had a serious impact: The Foundation Trilogy by Issac Asimov. 

In The Foundation Trilogy, it is only through creative, lateral problem-solving that one scientist reverses the seemingly inevitable fate of a whole population. The series has been rumored to have made a serious impact on Musk, potentially inspiring Musk’s SpaceX program. In an interview with Inc., Musk himself states:  

"The lesson I drew from the works of Isaac Asimov...is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one."

The path to enlightenment

Reading fiction helps to develop imaginative, lateral thinking. An avid reader gets to transport themselves and ‘live’ in hundreds of disparate minds and worlds, constantly exploring implicit connections, developing mental imagery and engaging in problem-solving situations.  

These experiences are all transferable to everyday life—who knows, maybe reading “Lord of the Flies” as a teenager will help you to solve a professional roadblock later in life? Well, given the particular novel example, hopefully not...

But still, literacy and active engagement with fiction undeniably have a multitude of positive effects. Some of these happen on a huge, societal scale, while others simply help you have better sleep at night. Either way, it seems in the best interests of humans to be lifelong learners—to continue expanding our minds, perspectives, and ideas while in the pursuit of a happy and fulfilled life.

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