Psychology of fiction

There are many reasons to read a novel. You might read to escape a calendar full of essay deadlines, to keep up with the most hyped-up literature, or just to pretend that you have a less monotonous life. But are those the only reasons? Is reading about Hogwarts and talking portraits really purposeless? This is a possibility, since the writer invents the plot and events of a story. On the other hand, could reading about ballroom etiquette in Pride and Prejudice serve a better purpose? In his article in Scientific American, Keith Oatley suggests that, yes, fiction serves a greater purpose than entertainment.


Keith Oatley proposes that reading a novel is comparable to simulation in dreams. In an evolutionary context, it has been suggested that dreams help to prepare the dreamer for real-life circumstances. Some of the most commonly reported dreams, for example, involve being chased or falling through space. In effect, novels might also help you to react appropriately in the real world.


Scientific studies have investigated the possibility of simulation in reading. In a fictional work, an author evokes emotion and reveals character intentions to his readers. While reading fiction, you experience these emotions and intentions as your own. Brain imaging techniques indicate that when a fictional character experiences emotional distress, the anterior cingulate cortex and other brain regions are activated in the reader, the same ones that are activated in the actual experience. Similarly, when a fictional character performs an action, brain regions associated with performing the action are activated.


How exactly does this simulation affect the person? Psychologists found that readers of fiction were better at determining emotions when presented with pictures of eyes than non-readers of fiction were. Readers of fiction also understood social interaction better than the average person who did not read fiction when evaluating video clips.


So your classroom bookworm is not necessarily socially inept. That bookworm could even have superior social skills compared to a person who does not read fiction. Maybe your well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice is about more than ballroom etiquette—maybe it helps you grasp the complexities of human relationships.

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