Reading Fiction Stretches Our Imaginations

Aristotle claimed that poetry—at the time, he meant the epics of Homer and other tragedies, which we now call fiction—was better than history. He argued that fiction tells us what is possible, whereas history tells us only what has happened.

Fiction stretches our imaginations and, in doing so, opens a window into ourselves and others.

To test this, Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and some colleagues ran a few studies. While the results are preliminary, they are nonetheless interesting.

In one study, Oatley asked people to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person’s eyes (intended to be a measure of empathy). Readers of fiction scored higher.

Professor Raymond Mar wanted to further test that empathy is a product of reading fiction (as opposed to empathetic people being drawn to fiction). He randomly divided two groups of subjects, one of which read a short work of fiction and the other a piece of non-fiction. The subjects were then asked to demonstrate “social reasoning.” Again, the fiction readers performed better.

Our brains interpret fiction differently. In another study, Oatley rewrote a piece of fiction as a piece of non-fiction. Basically, he took a story and made it into the transcript of a trial. Subjects who read the fiction version felt more emotion. The more emotion they felt, the more they changed. Oatley speculates the personality shifts may be produced by the reader entering into the fictional character’s mind. That is, we identify with what we’re reading.

Two researchers, Gabriel and Young, in the journal of Psychological Science, found that participants who read Harry Potter self-identify as wizards. Participants, on the other hand, reading Twilight self-identify as vampires.

We become part of the story. Surprisingly, it seems that belonging to these fictional communities provided the same life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups.

Gabriel and Young write:

The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.”

Oatley writes, “through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”

In explaining the role of fiction in our lives, Oatley uses the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

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If you want to know more, check out Lisa Zunshine’s her 2006 Why We Read Fiction. Zunshine argues that fiction engages our theory-of-mind faculties and gives us practice in working out what characters are thinking and feeling.

(1) Guardian
(2) Globe and Mail
(3) Greater Good