An article in the New York Times published on Saint Patrick’s Day caught my attention for its premise: fiction improves our minds. I believe this to be true, but haven’t looked too deeply into the science of it. Science author Annie Murphy Paul has. Her article confirms my personal experience of the effect of reading fiction on mental, social and life skills.
AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.
This got my neural processors firing away in anticipation of a good intellectual workout. Paul makes a compelling case for the power of the novel to engage, exercise and improve the brain.
The brain, the article reminds us, does not distinguish between imagining an experience as we read about it and actually experiencing it in real life. To the brain, one is as real as the other. This is a key principle of achieving excellence in any endeavor, practicing it in our minds so thoroughly that our mind cannot accept less than the perfect execution. High performance athletes understand this. Just as jet fighter pilots, high steel workers, leading corporate innovators, and neurosurgeons do. The fact that a good novel engages our mind and thrusts us into the heart of risk, danger, adventure, romance, achievement functions the way it does because our minds understand sensory details, evocative metaphors, and stimulating situations with such rich and complex experiences of reality that we discover and learn much as if we actually travelled, trained and risked as the novel’s characters do.
According to two scientific studies cited in the article, our experience of a novel hones our real-life social skills. The more we read fiction, the better we are able to understand other people, empathize with their challenges, and credibly see the world from their perspective.
Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.
Previously I held this truth to be self-evident. Now, I have proof that my preference for the novel literary form is pragmatic and has a basis in science.
The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, NY Times, March 17, 2012
Annie Murphy Paul | Science Author – TED Nov. 2011