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Why I think reading fiction is superior

By Valery Perez, April 20 2024—

As an avid reader, I can often be found with a minimum of one book in my possession at all times. This book is highly likely the latest piece of fiction I’m obsessing over. In combination with being a woman in STEM, has led many people to ask me why I would rather read the fake over facts. People often have the mindset that choosing to read about grand tales of dragons and swords makes you less intelligent, or that it serves less of an educational purpose. There’s no way reading The Return of the King would teach you more than Atomic Habits, right? I strongly disagree. 

An argument often used against fiction is that the brain must be exercised properly with knowledge, and reading about fairies is just a waste of time. This a weak argument considering fiction has been proven to stimulate the brain in more ways than one. Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley found that the neural mechanisms that are triggered in real life encounters also trigger when processing fictional narratives. Basically, reading the word ‘pull’ causes the same areas of the brain to light up as if you were pulling something in real life. 

It is also known to improve empathy. When reading about a great hero going on an adventure, we’re not uninvolved bystanders. We often place ourselves in the character’s shoes, consciously or not, and simulate what it is like to be going through their story. We will walk through their decisions and determine what our own would be, whether different or the same, and how we’d react to the consequences. Oatley argues that this process of engagement exercises inference and emotional involvement in an individual, and that, “fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader […] and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.”

This newfound empathy can make us more social individuals, as reading fiction engages the same network of the brain as social cognition. Social cognition is, “a set of processes, ranging from perception to decision-making, underlying the ability to decode others’ intentions and behaviours to plan actions fitting with social and moral considerations.” Meaning, fiction’s exposure to unique circumstances and characters that are unlikely to occur in real life provides readers an advantage in social situations. This exposure can allow us to exercise hypotheticals and produce socially adept responses to situations in real life.

Keeping the brain healthy through engagement and exercise, making you a better person through empathy, and helping you be less awkward, possibly leading to you not being so lonely and annoying, when interacting with others are only a few of the benefits. You also pick up a cool new hobby and have millions more conversation topics under your belt. Fiction as a genre is so broad that there’s a book out there for everyone. Stop wasting time being such a buzzkill and go read about wizards and dragons.

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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