As reported in today’s Globe & Mail, scientists have apparently proven the benefits of narrative fiction to it’s readers: bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.
Their years of research – summed up in the current issue of New Scientist magazine – has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts. And follow-up research showed that reading fiction may help fine-tune these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same magazine.
Those benefits, researchers say, may be because fiction acts as a type of simulator. Reading about make-believe people having make-believe adventures or whirlwind romances may actually help people navigate those trials in real life.
“Fiction is really about how to get around in the social world, which is not as easy as one might think,” said Keith Oatley, one of the researchers and a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. “People who read fiction give themselves quite a bit of practice in understanding that. And also, I think reading fiction sort of prompts one to think about these questions – you know, what are these people up to?”
I particularly like the part of the article that says:
“…this body of research is still in its infancy, and there are still many unanswered questions that he and his collaborators plan to tackle.
For example, most of their research has focused on fiction in general. But would they find similar effects if they looked at biographies? And do sci-fi tales about chasing aliens through the galaxy have the same benefits as Alice Munro’s short stories about love and loss? And what parts of the brain are stimulated when literary simulation is in full effect?”
My answer would, obviously, be “Yes…because you never know when we’ll need to chase aliens through the galaxy.” 😉
As a writer of narrative fiction I sometimes ponder the social value of what I do. In those dark moments I wonder whether maybe I’d be doing something more worthwhile if I wrote non-fiction, or strident polemics or something. I don’t have any particular inclination to do so, however, so I’m left with hoping that there’s something redeeming about fiction (which, if you’re to believe St. Augustine, there isn’t…)
So it turns out that there is, beyond simple enjoyment and entertainment. Science fiction has always touted itself as a form of literature that’s concerned with (depending on who you talk to) predicting, preventing, or preparing people for the future. It is a lofty claim that has a strong emotional appeal for me (sorry, St. A) but it’s nice to know that such claims turn out to have been right all along.