Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Person

Reading about characters in fiction affects our brains and how we respond to real people. (Photo: Balazs Kovacs/Shutterstock)

Ask any reader who their favorite fictional character in a novel is and you'll likely get a detailed explanation about what they admire about a beloved protagonist. It might even sound like they're talking about a person they know — and for good reason. Recent scientific studies have been exploring how reading about fictional characters affects our brains and our psychological response to real people. It turns out that regular novel readers derive some real benefits from all that time "alone" with their books. (I put alone in quotes because avid readers know that you're never alone when you have a good book!)

Here's a breakdown of what we know about the benefits of reading fiction:

Reading enhances connectivity in the brain. In a 2013 Emory University study, researchers looked at the brains of a group of people over nine days. Part of the group read the novel "Pompeii" by Robert Harris, and half didn't. Examining fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) of the readers' brains showed heightened connectivity in some areas, including the left temporal cortex (associated with language processing) and the central suculus, an area connected to primary sensory response, which assists in the brain's understanding of visualizing movement. This is likely because the brain visualizes the movement and emotions of the character you read about in a book.

Most interesting was the fact that: "Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory," the lead author of the study, Gregory Burns, said in a press release. So even after you've finished a book, your brain retains those benefits for some time afterwards.

For those who don't care for fiction, there's plenty of good news about the benefits of reading in general.

Readers are more empathetic. A 2013 study examined how reading affects empathy in readers. As the scientists in the study wrote in their paper's introduction, "It has been suggested that people who read a lot of fiction become more empathic, because fiction is a simulation of social experiences, in which people practice and enhance their interpersonal skills." But the researchers wanted to know if it was the reading causing the empathy, or if people who were already empathetic tended to read more fiction. So they did an experiment where readers were assigned fiction and non-fiction text to read. The people who not only read fiction, but felt a high level of "emotional transportation" while reading — as compared to people who weren't taken by the story or who read non-fiction — displayed higher levels of empathy when tested. Why does empathy matter? "Increase of empathy is important for people because empathy is positively related to creativity, performance at work, and prosocial and cooperative behaviors which looks at how sensitive people are to the feelings of others," wrote the scientists.

In another 2013 study, from the New School in New York City, researchers went even further, comparing the ability to identify emotions via facial cues between two groups that together totaled 1,000 people — a fairly large sample size for a study of this kind. One group read literary fiction (with texts by Chekhov and Tea Obreht), and the other read popular fiction (a romance by Danielle Steele, and "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn). Those who read the literary fiction got better scores on the tests, meaning they were better at understanding the emotions of people around them. Why does the type of fiction make a difference in interpreting emotional cues? "We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple," Emanuele Castano, one of the scientists, wrote to Mic. Reading about more complex characters possibly tunes us in even more to the emotions of real people in our lives.

And a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Southern California found that reading stories may give people greater empathy for each other, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, languages or differences. Scientists used fMRIs to map out brain responsive to narratives in three languages — English, Farsi and Mandarin Chinese. They found patterns of brain activation when people found meaning in the stories, regardless of language. The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, suggests that "exposure to narrative storytelling can have a widespread effect on triggering better self-awareness and empathy for others, regardless of the language or origin of the person being exposed to it," according to a USC statement.

Reading improves Theory of Mind (ToM). According to Psychology Today, ToM is "... the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own." Of various activities, reading novels has been found to improve this ability, whereas watching television programs or movies has been found to do just the opposite. In a study with young children, those who watched more television (or even had TV constantly on in the background — as about one-third of American homes do) had a reduced understanding of others and weaker cognitive development overall.

In surveys, more than one-third (the latest one I saw was 42 percent) of college grads will never pick up a book of any kind to read again. But maybe we should put more of a priority on novel-reading. And many readers (myself included) would argue that the mental and emotional investment in a book is far greater than any movie — and therefore more meaningful. Or if you just want to stick with the science, as David Kidd of the New School study told the Guardian, "Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience."