Brain Bulletin #85 - Why Reading Novels is Good for Your Brain

in Brain Bulletin

"A novel is a direct impression of life." ~ Henry James

Good observation.

Reading fiction, it turns out, is a great way to develop your social brain. Research shows that reading novels, for example, shapes our brains and molds our social skills.

A study by Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar found that reading fiction improves your ability to connect with others. The study demonstrated that people who read fiction perform better on tests of empathy. This result held up even when they controlled for the variable that empathetic people might naturally choose to read fiction. The study found that the more fiction a person read, the stronger the ability to make mental models of others.

Another study in 2010 found that small children who are exposed to lots of fiction material possessed a stronger ability to read the brain states of others.

In 2009, in another study, Oatley found that adults who read novels improved their socials skills, including emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and extroversion.

Why does this happen?

It seems that reading fiction allows you to 'live in other people's brains'. The result is a stronger "theory of mind". That is, the ability to take the perspective of another, to understand that person's mental model, to see issues and ideas in terms of other people's experiences.

Think about these practical benefits:

  • better relationships.
  • improved leadership skills.
  • increased collaboration skills.
  • greater emotional intelligence = greater income (P. Salovey, Yale)
  • excellent, inexpensive entertainment.
  • a greater understanding of human character.
  • when you put the book down, you are better prepared for the world.

Remember - your brain is wired to see what is essential, not what is real. Reading fiction intervenes in your cognitive processes. It can even change your personality.

FMRI scans show the brain responding to fiction as if the reader were feeling and acting just like the characters. For more on this, check out: The Amazing Discovery of Mirror Neurons 

Scientific American Magazine recommends these 9 novels to sharpen your mind:

  1. The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann von Goethe
  2. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  3. The Scarlett Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  4. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
  5. Middlemarch - George Eliot
  6. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
  7. Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
  8. Beloved - Toni Morrison
  9. Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee

I used to feel slightly guilty when reading a novel, thinking I should be reading something 'real'. Not any more......

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My favorite book this month was a novel. "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett. Brilliant.

It's been a crazy busy couple of months. Highlights include: five presentations in Ireland, keynoting the Kamloops teachers convention, a speaking tour in Alberta, training leaders at MDA Corp., and hanging out with teens at King David Secondary School.'s a good thing I love my job.

Next week, I speak in Vancouver, Victoria, and then off for a week of consulting with clients in Portugal (I'm counting on improved weather.). Looking further ahead, I will be speaking in Sweden and San Francisco this August.

Now that the weather has improved, I've got my bike and tennis racquet out. Keeping the lobes active.....