What’s the best reason to pick up a book? To many, the answer lies undoubtedly in acquiring knowledge through nonfiction. Over the last few years, Bill Gates has recommended 94 books. Only 9 of them are fiction. Warren Buffet recommended 19 books in 2019. None of them was fictional.
But new research – and old wisdom – may suggest otherwise. In fact, the practice of using stories, poems, and other fictional written words as a form of therapy has helped humans for centuries. And the cognitive sciences are now casting a new light on these matters. The next time someone chastises you for wasting your time reading fiction, then, consider talking to them about these 4 benefits.
Books give you access to other people’s minds. Narratives offer us the unique opportunity of identifying with characters’ longings and frustrations, guessing their motives, tracking their fictional lives. Sometimes something even more valuable arises: a feeling of commonality with the author. We get a glimpse of the brains of the greatest thinkers, their genius reinvigorating our minds. The psychologist Raymond Mar saw substantial overlap in brain networks we use to make sense of stories and the ones we use to interact with others. In essence, our brains react to the things we’re reading as if we’re actually living them. Fictional narratives put us inside the characters’ (and author’s) skin, allowing us to grow our capacity for empathy.
Even if you are skeptical that books can make us treat others better through empathy, they’re still a way to treat yourself better. Reading is an immersive experience that has been linked to a trance-like status. If meditation is coming to your mind, the New Yorker has your back. Just like meditation, research at the University of Sussex has shown that reading is one of the most effective ways to overcome stress, beating going for a walk by 600%.
Drifting away in fictional worlds can also help you disengage from the worries of the day, and get you ready to sleep. Well-known author and podcaster Tim Ferriss believes in the power of reading fiction before bed. “Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention.”
Open Your Mind
Books are not just stress relievers. They can also open your mind. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggests that Harry Potter can be used as a tool to improve attitudes towards discriminated groups. And if you feel like you can’t trust Rowling anymore, you can hear the inspirational story of how books helped Lisa Bu find a new path in this short Ted talk.
Over To You!
Can you notice any difference in yourself when you dedicate some time to reading? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.