Is fiction good for us? Does it build our moral character – or erode it?

At school I was told that only certain literature was good for me; it had to be literary, something approved by the district Education Board, preferably a classic. Perhaps that idea came all the way down from Plato, who wanted to ban fiction altogether from his ideal republic.

“Dan Brown? Not in my Republic.” (photograph: Lufke)

But Plato, that grim and self important pedagogue, had it all wrong. We know this, because advances in neuroscience and the latest methodologies used to map the brain mean we no longer have to speculate.

It seems that curling up with a good book is not a selfish indulgence. To the contrary, the latest research confirms something many of us have suspected for a long time; reading fiction is good for you.

These days they can put electrodes on your head to see what happens when you read. When you were at school and college they used exams to measure how much information your brain retained. But the new neuroscience can measure how much your brains reacts.

It’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Basically, the boffins can see which area of the brain lights up in response to stimulus.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, analyzed 86 fMRI studies, published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011, and found significant overlapping between neural networks used to understand stories and those used to interpret our interactions with other people.

‘I still think I learned more from Lassie.’ (author: Andrea Arden)

Apparently, whenever we connect with someone in our lives we try to figure out their thoughts and feelings, so we know how to respond to them. We get a lot of our information on how to do this from stories. So reading novels actually teaches something absolutely essential to healthy human relationships – empathy.

Why? Because the novel is unrivaled as a medium for exploring the emotional lives of others. It offers something unavailable to most of us in real life; the opportunity to engage completely in someone else’s viewpoint.

Mar published studies in 2006 and 2009 that show that heavy fiction readers easily outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy.

Wait, though. Was it just that more empathic people read more novels?

‘Ah-hah! Now I get why Mom has such terrible interpersonal relationships with her sisters.’ (photograph: Andy Eick)

Apparently not; a further study in 2010 showed that small children (aged 4-6) who were read to a lot could read other people far better than counterparts who did not. In other words the more stories they had read to them, the better their ‘theory of mind’ (the scientists buzzword for empathy.)

[Interesting sidenote: this trend was imitated by watching movies but not by watching television. Mar speculates that because children watch movies mostly with their parents, they have the opportunity to ask questions about the interactions taking place, and learn; but they watch TV alone. Also movies are stories; TV is a jumble of many things.)

Mar concluded: “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a fictional narrative.” In plain English: fiction does not just inform, it changes how we act in life.  We don’t respond to logic but we will respond to Jodi Picoult.

You can be moved by Martin Luther King’s speeches; but read The Help and you start to feel emotionally invested. Suddenly you have just the merest sense of how it might have felt to be black and poor in sixties America. The argument is no longer abstract. It’s personal.

‘Please I’m too tired to read about Henry VIII. I was up all night reading Wolf Hall.’

But there is a second benefit to reading fiction. As we all know, storytellers are obsessed with vice and violence. From the whispering evil of Iago to the brutality of Dicken’s London to the sexual sadism of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” novelists portray ugliness very well – and they always have an opinion about it.

We may not write ‘the moral of the story is’ at the end, as they did in Aesop’s day, but believe me, it’s there.

A hundred years ago Leo Tolstoy contended that novels were ‘morally beneficial.’ Fiction, he reasoned, is dominated by the concept of poetic justice.

‘Okay now I get why eating birds is morally wrong.’ (photograph: Ollie Crafoord)

Yet life is not poetic or just; we know this. Just turn on the evening news. But seeing the world not as it is, but as what it could be, is vital for us, as individuals and as a society. Without a vision for change, we do not change.

Austrian psychologist Marcus Appel has pointed out that no society functions properly unless its members believe in justice, the idea that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. Happy endings may persuade us to believe a lie; but believing the lie moves us to try and make that lie true.

Fiction then, regardless of genre, shapes our moral character and develops our empathic response. Why else would we be so addicted to made-up conflicts and made-up people? How else could story tellers survive the Darwinian principle?

Stories are important. The evolution of the hero and the re-telling of epic and myth through countless generations has given us common cause. It tells us who we are and what we want to become.

‘I should read this to Dad. Maybe he’d get why mum’s so mad at him all the time.’ (photograph: Moonsun 1981)

Does this research also explain why men have traditionally made up such a small part of the reading population? Have we, as a gender, worshipped too long at the feet of Logic? Is the disdain for Story why it’s so hard to get some of us to emotionally engage?

Perhaps you’d like to discuss that one between yourselves. My job here is done. Thanks to science, I am pleased to report that it’s official; pulp fiction should no longer be a guilty pleasure.

Fiction : it’s the healthy choice.

And because I want to see you all back here regularly, I am offering a free copy of my novel CORRIGAN’S RUN to anyone who joins my blog today. You can’t buy it … it’s not available anywhere else except here! All you have to do is join up, then write to me at colin underscore falconer underscore author at hotmail dot com. I can send you a copy as a mobi Epub or PDF file.

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. asraidevin says:

    I recall the argument in an Archie comic a time ago “You can tell your parents, hey I’m reading something”

    I figure reading reading anything is better than nothing. There is value in any way you use your brain.

    • I find the ‘story’ part of this research interesting. I checked out people I know, the ones who read fiction and the ones who never have. Interesting results!

  2. Men don’t seem to read fiction as much as women. Your theory that this may be why it’s hard for men to become emotionally engaged is a good thought! The question is: how to get men to change and read more fiction.

  3. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    I read about that study that readers are more empathetic than those who seldom read, and it makes perfect sense. Good news to hear that it helps children learn how to be empathetic, too. All the more reason to read to them! Cool post, Colin!

    • Absolutely Lynn! I loved reading to my kids when they were small, because they loved it so much – and so did I – but I didn’t realize it was benefiting them in that way as well. Movies too – I used to get frustrated when they kept asking questions right through a movie but now I see they were just trying to map what was happening.

  4. corajramos says:

    A piece of advice my mother gave me when I was young was to read, no matter what it was (I think I was conflicted about reading Confession magazines at the time). She said the act of reading was important and that I would find my way to good books in time. I am forever thankful for her open mind.

  5. prudencemacleod says:

    Colin, this is such a treat, mow I not only have an excuse to sit and read, I get to quote science and be smug about it. Great job, Sir, great job.

  6. I read this article – or another one that referenced the same studies – called “You are what you read.” Food for thought!

    • There’s been a lot of articles about this lately … I just find it so startling to see just how important reading is to kids. I think when you understand how something works, you can use it even better. It is indeed food for thought.

  7. shawnprobertson says:

    Great post. Many of the “Classics” were panned in their day, or called low brow, or cheap entertainment. Knowing that, and going by the science in your post, we can all just read whatever makes us happy. For all we know, we are creating the new classics!

    • Exactly right Shawn. Dickens was not highly regarded in his day and Shakespeare knew how to play to the crowd too. But their work became timeless because they were so good at story. It is intense engagement with whatever we’re reading that does indeed seem to be the most important aspect.

  8. Interesting, Colin. But I am not sure we should concern ourselves about whether Science validates fiction or reading. I mean, these are the whiz-bangs who gave us the Atomic bomb, the theory of humors and lobotomies. As to reading, I follow my Dad’s (a librarian) teaching. It’s fine to eat popcorn but you do need nourishing meals, and that does mean the Classics. Good Post!

    • Thanks Adelaida. Well at 7 my first books were Classics Illustrated; I fell in love with stories long before I knew what prose was, so I guess that’s my bias. But yes science did give us lobotomies too – they gave one to Hemingway and afterwards he couldn’t write any more. I believe it’s why he shot himself. I think the guys in the white coats have served us a little better on this one anyway …

  9. Thank you, Colin. Having studies validate something I’ve loved for as long as I can remember is nice. I’m not sure about that whole happily ever after thing though. I’m afraid that, sometimes, it gives us unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, HEA is a whole lot more fun to read than stories like On the Beach. 🙂

    • Bob Mayer has some interesting things to say about HEA. I think he gives Silence of the Lambs as a good example – Clarice wins the day and the bad guy gets his desserts but the even badder guy gets away … so you have this balanced kind of HEA, which isn’t a downer and justice is served but still keeps it real, as Ali G used to say. Not easy to pull off!

  10. Pingback: Monthly Mash-ups: 7 Encouraging Posts For Writers « « Virginia Ripple's Blog | One Servant's Heart Virginia Ripple's Blog | One Servant's Heart


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