Reading fiction does more than entertain.
Obviously you enjoy reading. You are here. Intuitively you know the benefits of reading: broadening your knowledge, learning about other people, being familiar with classic human creations, and enhancing your imagination.
I was not always like you. I used to hate reading. I resisted it because it was difficult and boring. "Who needs Dickens, Hemingway,or Homer?" I thought. Eventually, I realized that I did.
I converted to an avid reader late in high school, plowing through books for a few specific reasons. I knew that smart people read. I heard that colleges required reading. I wanted to become someone intelligent and important. And, I became embarrassed by my own ignorance.
I read over 100 books and plays my senior year: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, Macbeth, and the usual high school picks. I smooched book ideas off of the titles I saw on my English teacher's bookcase. After the first few, I realized that reading was enjoyable on many levels. The books made me think and feel in directions that were totally novel. I found that reading fiction made lasting changes in my brain.
Reading yielded impressive results, incredible. I could tell that my thinking was changing. And, I had empirical evidence of this fact. My grades went up in all subject areas, not just English. I changed nothing else: I didn't study more of the course material or read the text books. I just read more fiction.
I simply read books, and my thinking skills improved. In college, I started off with all A's, boosting my confidence and my reading. My brain functioned more efficiently. The benefits accelerated in college, and my writing improved dramatically.
Reading and the brain
In the past few years, neuroscientists have discovered evidence to explain my experience, studying the connections between reading and various forms of thinking. Language is the most complex skill we possess as humans, and it makes sense that reading would influence our mental capacities.
However, it's not just nonfiction that empowers the brain, as one might suspect. Common sense tells you that reading encyclopedias and text books will increase your knowledge. But fiction? In fact, reading fiction has unique benefits, not found in other kinds of reading. It engages higher level thought processes than non-fiction.
Reading and ambiguity
One of these deals with ambiguity, which the American Psychological Association defines as "A perceptual object that may have more than one interpretation." So things that can be seen from different perspectives. We deal with ambiguity all the time when we confront issues that can be seen from more than one viewpoint. Reading fiction increases one's ability to tolerate and cope with ambiguity.
This has relevance to intelligence going back to Aristotle, who claimed that "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." An educated mind can consider multiple, divergent points of view without having to accept any one of them. For Aristotle, this tolerance for ambiguity was a sign that a person was openminded and rational, able to postpone judgement, not rushing in to erroneous conclusions.
Tolerance of ambiguity also holds the power "to cope with unstructured or open-ended situations … a natural requisite for creativity." Creativity is an essential form of intelligence and leads to innovation, especially in business and entrepreneurialism. Life in general is full of puzzles with no clear solutions, and we grapple with the ambiguity. The better we are able to do that, the more creative we become.
Tolerating ambiguity is a challenging mental task and complex thinking skill because our brains want clear solutions. Tolerance requires self control, will power, and mental rigor. Admitting that the Red Sox might be a better baseball team than the Yankees is challenging if you live in New York (or vice versa). Understanding that each person believes his or her own church to be true and tolerating the beliefs of others is the essence of handling ambiguity.
In the article "Study: Reading novels makes us better thinkers," Tom Jacobs describes new research correlating the reading of fiction with a heightened tolerance of ambiguity. Part of the power in reading fiction is that:
while reading, the reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character. This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind.
You can think as another person through fiction, providing you with different points of view that do not necessarily lead to making a final decision. Sometimes leaving the issue open ended is being openminded. Aristotle referred to this as developing an "educated mind." This complex thinking is key to creative intelligence.
Reading and empathy
Developing empathy is another solid reason for reading fiction. According to Maja Djikic and colleagues of the University of Toronto in their article titled "Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy," fiction has the power to create feelings of empathy in the reader, a key aspect of emotional intelligence.
Empathy, in general, is the ability to adopt another individual's experiences through thought and feeling. When your best friend is dumped by his long-time girlfriend, you feel his pain.
Djikic performed extensive research that indicated you learn and increase your cognitive empathy by reading fiction. It's as if you enter the brain of another individual in order to see his or her point of view. Reading fiction is the playground where you learn to see feel, and think:
Many people consider reading fiction merely a leisure activity. The labels we place on fiction, however, do not negate its contribution to cognitive development. The world of literature encourages us to become others in imagination, and this may be one of most benign means of improving one’s abilities in the social domain. Of course, we can understand others by interacting with them, but in real life misunderstanding often causes severe upsets. Fictional literature, in which we can misunderstand without suffering negative consequences, may be a gentler teacher.
Empathy is unique in the animal kingdom, not just to human animals, and is a noble trait that leads to altruism and other virtues. Through reading, one nurtures that ability to acknowledge and understand the thoughts of others. Imagine the difference this habit can cause within individuals and society, each person better understanding the other.
The reason my grades improved in school lies in ambiguity and empathy. In those books, knowledge was not the most important thing I found. The value in my fiction reading was that it changed the way my brain functioned and the way I viewed the world. Reading fiction can make a brain more:
These skills and abilities change in our brains as we read quality fiction, and the brain uses the skills in other domains of knowledge. The best thing is that this can happen at any age. Our brains are plastic, meaning they change and adapt over a lifetime. By reading more fiction, you can make positive, permanent changes in your brain structure.
Reading makes you smart on multiple levels, and not simply reading nonfiction. Fiction is the key to unlock complex aspects of your social, emotional, and rational intelligence. And, the lessons we learn in the minds of these characters are life and brain changing.
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Before you leave, share how reading has impacted your intellectual life. What is on your reading list right now?